Part Two: It Doesn’t Have to be Like This — Practical Ways to Fix our Elections

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

A line drawing of a hand putting a ballot into a ballot box with other ballots shown inside.
Image courtesy svgsilh.com

You can’t blame people for being cynical about the value of their vote. In a world where big donors appear to be making the big decisions, districts are gerrymandered into foregone conclusions, the average congressperson represents 747,000 constituents, and nobody knows which special interests are paying the bills, it’s reasonable to ask if we’re even really living in a democracy, anymore.

Wikipedia’s list of forms of government suggests some terms that might be more accurate. It might be correct to call the US a netocracy, a portmanteau of internet and aristocracy describing a new aristocracy of the digitally connected. You could also reasonably argue for the term cyberdeutocracy, a system of government “where information elites engage in the destruction and/or transformation of existing meanings, symbols, values, and ideas; the generation of new meanings, symbols, values, and ideas; and the introduction of these transformed and new meanings, symbols, values, and ideas into the public consciousness to shape society’s perception of political reality.”

Tellingly, one of the definers of the term netocracy also defines an associated underclass:

A rounded stick figure of the kind used in road and restroom signs is shown pushing a shopping cart full of boxes.  Bard describes the consumatariate's choices as more about shopping than elections.
Is this all we are? Image via Pixabay.com PaliGraficas

Alexander Bard describes a new underclass called the consumtariat, a portmanteau of consumer and proletariat, whose main activity is consumption, regulated from above. It is kept occupied with private problems, its desires provoked with the use of adverts and its active participation is limited to things like product choice, product customization, engaging with interactive products and life-style choice.

Wikipedia

The time-tested term plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) might also be accurate.

However you define it, government in the US feels less and less like something by, for, and of the people.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

That is really what the First Strategy — Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation — outlined in the report is about. The report makes it very clear that there are steps we can take to wrest control of our government away from the elite and into the hands of the people.

Some of the recommendations call for change at a national level, where good ideas currently go to die. A constitutional amendment to separate corporate rights from individual rights (1.5), an expansion of the House of Representatives (1.1), repealing a 1967 law that mandates single member districts (1.3), and changing Supreme Court Justice terms from life to 18 years (1.8) are all ideas that aren’t going to get traction until we change who we are sending to Washington.

An image of the US Capitol Building.
Where good ideas go to die. Image courtesy By Architect of the Capitol – aoc.gov, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7531712.

But the recommendation to introduce ranked-choice voting in local, state, and federal elections (1.2) is something that can happen at a grassroots level. So are the adoption of independent citizen-redistricting commissions (1.4); strong state-level campaign finance disclosure laws (1.6); and passing clean election laws, again at the state level, implementing systems such as donation matching and democracy vouchers, to amplify the impact of small donors (1.7).

Americans broadly agree on more than one might expect. From policies like universal background checks, ending cash bail, and legal status for dreamers to principles like lower drug costs, funding for child care, and action on climate change. So how is it that none of it ever gets done? All of the above measures that can be done at the state and local levels would begin to address the problem.

Most elections in the US, from dogcatcher to the president, are organized in a winner-take-all format. That means that if there is a three-way race, and two of the candidates get roughly 30% of the vote each, the win goes to the third candidate who got around 40% of the vote even though 60% of the voters don’t actually like that candidate.

In a real-world example, only 5.5% of eligible voters actually voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries. He was close to getting half the primary votes, but not quite there, which means that more than half of Republican primary voters voted against him.

Map of the US showing the vote distribution in the 2016 Republican primary election.  The map shows that Mr Trump garnered the majority of votes in about half of the states that he won, while in the other half he won without a majority.
U.S. States by Vote Distribution, 2016 (Republican Party). You can see that while President Trump had a clear majority in some states, in many others he did not. This isn’t a party thing — there are plenty of Democratic examples out there, I just don’t have a handy chart for them. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Ali Zifan / CC BY-SA

Winner-take-all or first-past-the-post elections push candidates toward extreme positions because they are won not by the candidate with the majority of votes, but by the candidate who has the most votes, a plurality. To win a majority, a candidate needs to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate and build a large coalition. To win a plurality, a candidate can instead provide red meat for extremists, especially in primaries (since typically only passionate, committed voters, often citizens of the ideological extremes, turn out for them). Once the nomination is secured, the party’s moderates will feel that they have no choice but to vote for a candidate they don’t like, but see as the lesser of two evils.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more of us were casting ballots for a candidate we actually believed in?

There is nothing in the constitution that says states, counties, and cities have to use a winner-take-all system. We’re only doing it this way because we’ve done it this way for a long time, and because we see other states and locations doing it this way. That’s not a very good reason to keep using a system that is giving us increasingly terrible results.

In 2016, after a grassroots campaign, Maine passed a ‘question’ on whether or not to switch to ranked-choice voting. After a bit of a legal saga, and several additional votes, that state will be the first to hold a presidential election by this method in November. There are grassroots campaigns underway to implement similar systems in Alaska, Massachusets, and North Dakota. Several cities, including New York, use the system or will be voting on it soon.

It’s a whole thing, and it works. In terms of how it works, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. If you have five candidates in a particular race, instead of casting a vote for one of them, you rank them in your order of preference. If nobody gets a 50%+1 majority, the candidates below a certain threshold are eliminated, and their votes go to whoever was that voter’s second choice. It’s basically a run-off system, without the time and expense of actually holding run-offs. Australia has been using it for federal lower house elections since 1918. Ireland has been using it for presidential elections since 1937. Fiji and Papua New Guinea seem to get along fine with it.

An example of a ranked-choice voting ballot, using an imaginary mayoral election among John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and a write in.  A drawing of a hand is shown filling out the ballot.
It’s a pretty simple system. Image courtesy: Peter J. Yost / CC0 , Wikimedia Commons.

The system also encourages third party candidates and their voters, because they won’t split the vote and cause the major party candidate most ideologically similar to them to lose. And just think how nice it would be to rank your choices instead of trying to strategize about which candidate has a better chance in the general.

Instead of candidates going to the extremest extremes to differentiate themselves, ranked-choice voting leads to this sort of thing:

Just think! With a grassroots effort, your slate of 2024 campaign ads could look like that.

The measure that citizens are trying to get on the ballot in North Dakota would implement ranked-choice voting and a citizen-redistricting commission to draw up the districts after the 2020 census. Again, there is nothing in the national constitution that says the dominant party in the state legislature should get to draw the districts.

We all know that gerrymandering is a problem. Somehow it doesn’t feel like what the framers intended. And when you consider the technological innovations of the last 40-odd years, the partisan advantages gained by ever more sophisticated gerrymandering look less and less like something a reasonable sort of enlightenment thinker would endorse.

The original 1812 political cartoon depicting a state senate election district in Massachusetts as a sort of dragon/salamander hybrid.  The term gerrymander was coined based on the shape of this district and the last name of then Governor Elbridge Gerry.  Image reflects the problem of gerrymandering in our elections.
Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts, as a dragon-like “monster”. Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a portmanteau of that word and Governor Gerry’s last name. Image and caption courtesy Wikipedia, By Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) (often falsely attributed to Gilbert Stuart)[1] – Originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812., Public Domain, Link

It is also definitely not something any of our representatives, federal, state, or local, are going to fix for us. If we the people want fair districts, we the people are going to have to start collecting signatures for more ballot initiatives.

The last two of the currently feasible recommendations listed under the strategy of achieving equality of voice and representation are all about campaign financing. Our elected officials know how they got where they are, and it wasn’t by not accepting money or advocating strategies that would level the playing field for less well-funded opponents. We can, and should, expect them to do the right thing. But we clearly can’t count on it.

We’ve been counting on it, and just look how far we’ve gotten. The 2016 elections for national offices cost around about 6.4 billion dollars. Think about all the other things we, as a nation, could have done with an extra 6.4 billion dollars! And those donations are influencing policies. How could they not be?

Washington isn’t going to change this. The framers never imagined it, and so didn’t provide for it. They didn’t write the constitution to limit campaign donations to actual human people, and the Supreme Court didn’t interpret it thus.

An outline of the Unites States filled in with images of one dollar bills, reflecting the predominance of money in our elections.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Of all the recommendations put forward by the commission, a constitutional amendment reigning in corporate donations seems the most far-fetched, given our current situation.

But if we want to seriously start calling ourselves a democracy again, we’ve got to do something. One of the commission’s recommendations is to empower small donors by matching or multiplying their donations, or giving everyone vouchers to give to their favorite candidate. I’m a little cynical about this one. The question that occurs to me is what are we giving up in order to fund it? Is the campaign donation budget going to come partially from my niece’s middle and high-school education budget? Are we going to take it from the libraries, our crumbling infrastructure, or (lord help us all in the time of COVID) from our public health system?

It’s a good idea, but nobody is going to tax themselves for it.

The other recommendation is much simpler. It’s just transparency. Our elected representatives are going to be selling out to big donors for the foreseeable future. It would be better for democracy if we at least got to know who they were selling out to.

There isn’t much we can do at the federal level. We’re stuck with the campaign finance laws we have until we elect different representatives who might be willing to make different laws. However, our state legislatures often act as a sort of bush league for national office. And we can (some states already have) pass laws so that we can know who is donating what to our state representatives.

If the speaker of a state legislature is elected with massive support from a particular corporate interest, it is reasonable to surmise that her donor portfolio may be similar when she runs for national office six years later, unless her positions have changed substantially.

And, of course, many, if not most, of the decisions that impact our daily lives are made at the state and local level, anyway. Passing laws to take the dark money (particularly from 501(c)3 and 4 tax exempt entities) out of our state and local politics would be a huge win for citizens. And it can be done with ballot measures and via local politics, which are typically more responsive than your average congressperson with their 747,000 constituents.

An 1865 petition for woman suffrage signed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  A big fix for our elections, done in part by ballot initiative.
It took 50 more years for women to get suffrage after this 1865 petition. They were signing petitions for change before they were even voters. Part of the fight for women suffrage was done via ballot initative in various states. National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

Overall, even though half the recommendations listed under this strategy in the report are pretty pie-in-the-sky for the time being, I found a lot of reasons to have hope here. I’m especially optimistic about the national groundswell of support around the idea of ranked-choice voting.

It feel so powerless to be a citizen, these days. In this country we talk a great talk about the difference one person can make, and how wonderful it is that we vote. But when it comes to actually changing our increasingly toxic political landscape, most of us have given up. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a report with four down-to-earth, practical, attainable changes that can be made, or at least go up for a vote, if we can just find a few committed citizens to head things up.

Any volunteers?

Part One: A Democracy in Crisis

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

America is not doing well. This was abundantly clear even before COVID19 and the murder of George Floyd.

In 2019, only 17% of Americans said they could trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time.

This level of cynicism does not reflect an engaged citizenry.

In 2017, the top ten percent of incomes represented 50.6% of the total income in the US, leaving 90% of the people to live on 49.4% of the money. That level of income inequality surpasses the level in 1928, shortly before the stock market bubble burst. From 1993 to 2007, the average income of 99% of families grew by 15.5%. The income of families in that last 1% grew by 95.5%.

This level of income inequality elevates the voices of the few, and delegitimizes citizen engagement.

In 2016, campaign spending for congressional races was more than 4 billion dollars. The presidential election was a relatively and unusually cheap >2.4 billion dollars.

This kind of pay-to-play system of government renders other forms of engaged citizenship frustratingly ineffective.

In the same election 55.7% of the voting-age population cast ballots, ranking the U.S. 26th out of 32 OECD countries in voter turnout.

Engaged citizens vote. Too many Americans don’t.

As recently as 2004, Americans largely met in the ideological middle:

A graph showing the large overlap of median democrat and median republican ideology in 2004.  Bipartisan agreement fosters engaged citizenship.

Source: The Pew Research Center’s U.S. Politics & Policy page.

By 2017, we couldn’t seem to agree on anything:

A graph showing a wide divergence between median republican and median democrat ideologies, with only small areas of overlap.   Bipartisan agreement fosters engaged citizenship.
Source: The Pew Research Center’s U.S. Politics & Policy page.

A reasonable amount of consensus is a necessary part of engaged citizenship.

There is very little overlap in our trust of various news sources, which means we are, in large part, exclusively exposed to particular worldviews. More than half of U.S. adults say they get news from social media sites often or sometimes, with 52% of people reporting that they get news from Facebook. The reform or mitigation of Facebook algorithms in the public interest, deprioritizing hyper-partisan, sensationalist content, seems to have fallen by the wayside. At the same time, we are more and more likely to feel lonely and isolated, making us vulnerable to tribalistic thinking.

Engaged citizens must have a shared reality.

And even in our loneliness, it seems we aren’t willing or able to engage with the political process at a personal level.

Last year, only one in ten Americans attended a public meeting, such as a zoning or school board meeting in the last year.15 Regardless of racial background, fewer than 15 percent of Americans attended a local political meeting in 2018; fewer than 10 percent attended a political protest, march, or demonstration; and fewer than 5 percent worked for a candidate or campaign. White Americans were twice as likely as members of any other racial group to have contacted a public official, but even in that group, fewer than 30 percent had done so.16

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing Democracy for the Twenty-First Century — The Challenges

Engaged citizens participate.

On top of all this, good information about what is going on in local politics is getting harder to come by. Since 2004, the U.S. has lost more than 2,100 newspapers.

A map of the United States showing orange dots where a weekly newspaper has disappeared and blue dots where a daily newspaper has disappeared.  The Midwestern, East, and Southeast parts of the country are nearly covered in orange dots, with many blue dots scattered in.  Dots cluster around populated areas in the West and Southwest.  Quality information is important for engaged citizenship.
The University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism.

Engaged citizens must be informed citizens.

Things have gotten so bad that, in a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of Americans were open to considering other forms of government, including rule by a strong leader or by experts.

Commitment to the democratic process engages citizens.

Yep. Our democracy, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, is a hot mess.

And now, on top of all this, we are probably losing the battle with a pandemic, our economy has tanked, and the structural inequality and racism in the country has become too glaringly obvious for even the complaisant to deny.

It’s time to think, and think seriously, about how we can change our trajectory. Theoretically, as a democracy, we should be agile enough to respond to crises with bold ideas and flexibility. It’s time to prove it.

That’s where the American Academy of Arts and Sciences comes in. Here is their mission statement:

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences honors excellence and convenes leaders from every field of human endeavor to examine new ideas, address issues of importance to the nation and the world, and work together “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

It was clearly someone’s job to make that sound great, if a little vague. Take a look at their list of recent projects to get a better sense of the organization.

In 2018, they convened a two-year bipartisan Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. That commission has now come out with its report, including six strategies and 31 recommendations “that communities, institutions, and individuals can take to promote engaged citizenship in the 21stcentury.”

The democratic experiment is first and foremost a form of participatory government. It’s not meant to be a spectator sport. As the franchise expanded in America from property-owning white males to all citizens 18 and up (at least theoretically), so too did the essence of democratic-ness expand in the country. But now, with only half the country voting in a compelling presidential election, with so few participating in civic life, with massive inequality and a pay-to-play election system, and with citizens acting on worldviews so polarized that reality itself is in dispute, it’s fair to say that our democratic-ness is declining.

A voter had to be a really engaged citizen to vote in the recent Wisconsin primary, in the midst of the pandemic.  This image shows such an engaged citizen checking with National Guard member serving as a poll worker in what appears to be a high school gym.
Pvt. Will Reas of the 173rd Brigade Engineer Battalion checks voters into a polling place May 12 in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Approximately 160 Wisconsin National Guard Citizen Soldiers mobilized to State Active Duty as poll workers supporting the 7th Congressional District special election in northern Wisconsin. Wisconsin National Guard photo

In a country that is potentially cruising towards a constitutional crisis, this is a problem. So how do we begin to address some of this?

I found this report particularly compelling because, instead of merely reiterating the problems we face, it attempts to find concrete ways to help fix those problems, or at least put us on the right path. The commission brought thought leaders together for interviews, reviewed previous recommendations for fostering engaged citizenship, and conducted nearly fifty listening sessions across the country and including a wide diversity of people. And it is bipartisan.

Just think about that for a second. A commission of serious, grown-up thinkers from all along the ideological spectrum and all over the country, including leaders from academia, civil society, politics, and business, finding consensus, and agreeing to put forward a package of thirty-one specific and actionable proposals. It’s unheard of in today’s political ecosystem.

In this series, I will take a closer look at the strategies outlined in the report, and some of the recommendations of the commission. Democracy depends on citizen engagement. We all owe it to ourselves to look at some of the ways we can update our democracy for the 21st century, and foster the involvement of the people. That is the only way America can become by the people, of the people, and for the people again.

Nothing to Lose: Race and Poverty in America

You can’t give people nothing to lose and expect stability.

People protest with signs after the killing of George Floyd.  African-Americans feature prominently, but there is a white person and another person of color in the image as well.  Signs read "black lives matter," "he could not breathe," and "stop (sign image) blue on black crime."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The grace, tolerance, and restraint shown by black and brown people in the protests gripping the nation continually amazes me. Almost all of the demonstrators are committed to furthering a non-violent movement for change. Given the realities, that demonstrates a dedication to principles of peaceful civil disobedience that is absolutely remarkable.

I have spent most of the last nine years working in low-income apartment communities. The trust that people have given me in letting me a little way into their lives and telling me their stories has been a great honor. And time and again I have seen people boxed into a corner by society. Being poor in America is an unending series of catch-22s with no wins and no way out.

The communities where I worked were economically segregated, and included both people of color and white people. What I learned about poverty applies to them all, but everything one can say about poverty in America disproportionately impacts people of color because poverty itself disproportionately impacts people of color.

I have seen the impact of structural police racism on black lives. It’s not just about the terrifying threat to life and limb that African-Americans experience, it’s about a million petty charges filed, and how those petty charges dog a person’s life. That misdemeanor charge for smoking pot in public or talking back to an officer makes it hard to find housing and employment. A charge that would be scoffed off as someone just being young and dumb (if it was even filed) in white job or apartment applicants is seen as indicative of character for black and brown applicants.

Beyond those obvious effects is the fact that the criminal justice system in America has become a resource extraction industry, fracking impoverished communities to pull out every last nickel and dime for the benefit of the taxpayer, who doesn’t have to invest in the infrastructure of law and order. Any brush with the law incurs a seemingly endless string of expenses. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start making people pay room and board for their jail or prison stays. They already charge for everything else.

It sounds tough but fair to say that if someone committed a crime they should pay the expenses of their punishment. But when you consider that an ankle monitor can cost around $330 a month, and what that means to someone who may have $700 or less in monthly income, it becomes a double jeopardy issue.

Modern apartment building in brick red, mustard yellow, and grey blue.  Sign in foreground reads "Ruby Hill Residences Leasing Center" followed by an arrow.
One of the buildings where I worked — it was brand new when I started there. The city desperately needs dozens more buildings like it. ©clmcdermid

Employment opportunities for the under-educated poor are almost a bitter joke. Most of what is available is exploitation, pure and simple. It’s virtually always shift work, so there is no stability from paycheck to paycheck, from week to week. Without any stability, there can be no planning for the future. Not the far future, like going back to school, getting a degree, and getting a better job. There can be no planning for the near future, like what childcare will be necessary next week, and will I be able to pay for it with the shifts I am getting this week? And the wages often barely cover the cost of getting back and forth to the job.

If a worker makes it into a managerial position, things get, if anything, even worse. Most of these positions are salaried, and have no overtime payment. If you factor in the amount of hours it takes to fulfill all the job expectations, some managers wind up getting less than minimum wage.

With increasing automation, most of even these exploitative jobs are disappearing.

Getting an education that will potentially qualify you for a better job isn’t necessarily so easy either. Property taxes in low-income communities just don’t stretch as far as they do in affluent ones. The public schools suffer for it. Many of the people I worked with in their twenties who had graduated from high school did not know how to send an email, capitalize, or punctuate. It’s hard to go to school every day prepared to learn when your family is enduring the grueling stress of poverty. It’s hard to learn essential skills in an overcrowded classroom with limited technology.

Even for folks who have the skills for college, scholarships are limited and usually don’t include expenses like transportation and parking. In Denver, there is a low-income child care program that will subsidize daycare for those enrolled in school, but spots in child care programs that accept the subsidy are rare, and often far distant. I knew one woman who was traveling two hours by bus every day to drop her child off at daycare, and two hours to pick her up. Many potential college students are sidelined by being caregivers to children, to a parent, or to a grandparent. Immediate family obligations needs must trump opportunities for long term improvements.

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, Michigan.  Protesters in the foreground carry an African flag and a Black Lives Matter flag in front of them.  Other protesters carry signs.  Only one sign is legible, and it reads "we wont let you silence George."  The four protesters in the foreground are African American women wearing black.  The protesters behind them are a mix of races.
Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, MI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I can speak, to an extent, to the injustices of poverty, because I have witnessed them. Obviously, not all black and brown people are poor, and racism, both structural and overt, plays a large and somewhat different role in the lives of middle and upper class people of color.

But for the communities of color that are trapped in the seemingly endless snares of poverty, there is vanishingly little to recommend the status quo. And now people of color are dying at hugely disproportionate rates of COVID 19 while the threat from racist policing looms constantly.

Even without an outright police murder caught on camera, is it any wonder that people have taken to the streets? The only wonders are that it took this long and that the Black Lives Matter movement is so committed to non-violence.

When the most basic human right, the right that predicates all the others, the simple right to live and exist, is under threat, people simultaneously have nothing and everything to lose. The fight for change is existential. They myriad frustrations, indignities, and impossible situations of poverty need to be fought against. But gains there must be built on a foundation of the right to be alive and secure in one’s person.

People in the streets today are fighting for the right to better education, better jobs at better pay, better housing, better policing, better health care, and all the rest of the elements that make a good life in modern times. But first and foremost, people are fighting for the right to drink cool water on a hot day, to get a tight hug from a child, to savor a good meal, to walk down the street, to feel the snow in winter and rain in summer on warm skin, to simply breathe and be alive. One cannot enjoy any other rights, any quality of life, without life itself.

When income inequality was last this bad, the workers organized into unions and fought hard, bloody struggles to win us things like a living wage, an eight hour day, and bathroom breaks. Those hard-won rights created a stable middle class, at least for white America. Since those struggles, we have let all those rights erode. We have allowed that middle class, never available to everyone, to evaporate. And we have continued to deny black and brown Americans the basic dignities white people take for granted.

I hesitated to write this up. This isn’t my experience to write about. It isn’t my voice we should be listening to now. Listen to Dawn Turner and many other amazing voices of color, instead.

But sometimes people need to hear something from someone who looks like them, speaks like them, or lives near them. If you can’t take it from the people on the streets, take it from me. Racism isn’t just something that happens in nine brutal minutes, or to birdwatchers. It pervades America, and it pervades class in America. This is about all of that. I haven’t lived the experience, but I am a witness and would take it as a privilege to be considered an ally.

America cannot continue to give her people nothing to lose while threatening the most basic right of all, the right to simply live.

I will be out of town this weekend, so will not respond to comments until Monday or Tuesday. Thanks.

What Will it Be Like?

I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.

T-Rex skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the destinations of the RTD Senior-Ride program. ©clmcdermid

Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?

My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?

Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.

I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?

A painting of French and English troops fighting at the Battle of Waterloo.  Officers on horseback are in the foreground, and troops in formation are in the background.  One officer is in the process of falling off a black horse.
The Battle of Waterloo, by Thomas Jones Barker. Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.

We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.

It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.

But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A black and white cartoon turtle looks in alarm as a cheeky monkey hangs from a tree, holding out a stick from which is dangling a lit stick of TNT.
Bert the turtle knows how to duck and cover. Do you? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?

But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.

That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.

In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.

Prince Charles in front of a projected map of the UK with temperatures superimposed on it, delivering a weather forecast.
Weather forecasting has become so sophisticated, even royalty can do it. Image courtesy of user Dunk on Flikr.

And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.

Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.

And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.

Duties, Rights, and Responsibilities

In the States, we are framing our national debate around our freedom to (leave the house, shop, get haircuts, go to work) versus our freedom from (COVID19, the unmasked, germs, non-essential risks). But what if this isn’t about our right to get a haircut, or our right to be safe? What if this isn’t about our rights at all? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

I’ve been thinking a lot about duty lately. It isn’t something we talk about much in the States anymore. It isn’t something we have talked about much for a long time. Maybe this is the time to re-emphasize that democratic citizenship and patriotism don’t just bestow rights, they also incur responsibilities.

Hands wearing blue medical gloves sew a calico cloth face mask on a white sewing machine.  Three other masks are on the table.  There is a stack of fabric on the table.  Many saw sewing masks as a duty.
Many undertook mask making as a voluntary duty at the beginning of the pandemic. Is it our duty to wear them? Image via Adobe Stock.

What are our duties in a democracy during a pandemic? What obligations do we have to our fellow citizens? To our government? To the economy? To essential workers? What duty do we owe to our most vulnerable populations, to our neighbors, to our friends and families? What should we be doing for our states, towns, and cities? For our healthcare workers?

We are in the midst of an existential debate about the role of government while in the midst of a pandemic. Should our federal and state authorities prioritize our freedoms from or our freedoms to? What is our government actually for? This debate has always existed in, and to an extent defined, the United States. But in the last 30 or so years the debate has increasingly come to define us as individuals. It has become particularly loud, aggressive, and destructive, and it has become about poles rather than a spectrum of ideas and opinions.

We’ve become so caught up in this debate about what government ought to do, we’ve forgotten about what we ought to do.

Wikipedia defines duty as follows:

A duty (from “due” meaning “that which is owing”; Old French: deu, did, past participle of devoir; Latin: debere, debitum, whence “debt“) is a commitment or expectation to perform some action in general or if certain circumstances arise. A duty may arise from a system of ethics or morality, especially in an honor culture. Many duties are created by law, sometimes including a codified punishment or liability for non-performance.

I posit that duties also arise from systems of government and social expectations. The duty to vote and be informed arises from democracy. Our duty to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes is entirely a social norm. (Now, of course, we all have a duty to try desperately hard not to sneeze in public at all.)

A Louisiana National Guard soldier on duty puts a box of food into the back of a white SUV at a food bank.
Louisiana Army Guard Soldiers with the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team help package and distribute food to the local community at the Food Bank of Central Louisiana in Alexandria, La, March 24, 2020. Soldiers are assisting the food bank to ensure the supply of food for the needy is maintained and distributed during the increased demand from COVID-19. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Thea James)

Our challenge now should be to sort out, as individuals and as a society, the tangled priorities of our own personal responsibilities. Does our duty to stimulate the economy and support local businesses outweigh our personal responsibility to save for all the rainy days we are in for? Does our onus to maximize self-sufficiency surpass our obligation to leave some toilet paper for the next customer (hint, no!)? How do we balance our economic needs with our responsibility to protect our neighbors, coworkers, and families? Is it our duty to utilize our essential services to keep people employed, or to minimize our use to try to protect workers? What can we do? What should we do?

The people who sat at their sewing machines making mask after mask have been asking the right questions. The people putting bags of groceries into trunks at the local food banks are doing or exceeding their duty. The essential workers who keep us all fed and tend to our health are what a retired Royal Navy man of my acquaintance once referred to as ABCD. Above and beyond the call of duty.

Now, more than ever in most of our lifetimes, it is about what we can do for our country. It isn’t about us and our freedoms and rights, it’s about we. We the families and neighborhoods, the towns and cities, the states and the United States, the world. We the people, not we the persons.

Missing Multigenerational Interaction

Family of many ages on wooden rope swings, youngest to oldest, left to right.
It’s normal for humans to be around other humans of all ages. Image via Adobe Stock.

I ran across this article today in Aeon by Sarah Menkedick. It is a long-form reflection on the segregation of family (kid-centered) and adult life in the United States. She makes some interesting points, but it really got me thinking that this divide, which she attributes partially to a lack of community, cuts both ways.

I am a single, childless adult who was raised in home daycare. I think it is weird when someone doesn’t know how to interact with a kid or is uncomfortable or incompetent around them. As an adult, I have worked with kids in various capacities, from my earliest jobs day-camp counseling and clerking at my local rec center to my latest adventures in substitute teaching.

Right now, the only kids in my life are my nieces. (Who are awesome, but really teens at this point.)

I miss them. Don’t get me wrong. I could never do the home daycare that my mother did, and I’m not looking for a kid-centric career. But since I am not working with kids, and my nieces are older, there are no places in my life, even once we are all out of quarantine, where I will have any significant interaction with anyone too young to hold a job. There is just no context in our society for a childless adult to be around kids. In fact, custom dictates that we snub them as noisy, messy, and inconvenient.

The implicit theme of Ms. Menkedick’s piece is that kids and families are missing something by being shunted into kid-oriented spaces and even explicitly segregated from events such as weddings. They are, and so are the adults.

Hanging out with kids exposes you to different paradigms. They haven’t yet learned or internalized all the conventions that adults don’t even notice they are living within. If we’re all swimming in the same current, kids perspectives can be so different, based on such different assumptions, they might not even be in the water.

When adults are around kids, they laugh more. In multigenerational interactions, it’s okay to be really enthusiastic, which would be weird in adult-only company. Grown-ups get a chance to teach, a chance to be joyful, and even a chance to share woe in the empathetic way we respond to tears. We get a chance to look out for someone. We are more mindful of our surroundings. We get to think things are neat and show them to an appreciative audience.

An ability, and usually the impulse, to do all these things was baked into us by evolution. We want to give our own offspring the best chance to survive, and the next best thing is to give our kin’s offspring the best chance to survive. It isn’t hard to expand this impulse to a multigenerational community. It takes a village, and all that. It’s natural for humans to be around human children, and it’s weird that we live in a society where we aren’t.

The hole in American life that was once filled by community ties impoverishes us all, kids, adults, and the elderly, alike. Multigenerational interaction is part of community, and it is a key element that is missing in our lonely, self-sufficient (but not really) lives. It’s not just kids who miss out when they aren’t included as citizens and participants in society.

National Service

WPA poster, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Today, watching a back episode of Amanpour and Co., I heard Mark Cuban call for National Service. The idea gets kicked around. Pete Buttigieg, a Navy vet, rolled out a whole plan, along with Kirsten Gillibrand, and some more obscure Democratic candidates. Clinton called for an expansion of AmeriCorps in 2016, as did Obama in 2008. A quick scan of Biden’s website shows him proposing $10,000 in student debt relief for every year spent in national or community service.

Now, of course, as Cuban points out when he talks about unions in the above clip, things have changed. National service seems less like a squishy, feel good, liberal sort of program, and more like something that could save the country.

During the Great Depression, FDR launched the Civilian Conservation Corps. In its heyday in 1935, more than 500,000 young men were enrolled, doing things like building roads, airstrips, trails, and campsites; controlling erosion and flooding; fighting fire; planting trees and shrubs; improving streams; and providing disaster relief. In a Gallup poll in 1936, 82% of respondents were in favor of the CCC. That number included 92% of the Democrats and 67% of the Republicans. That’s pretty broad bipartisan support.

The CCC’s big brother, the Work Progress Administration, employed 8.5 million people between 1935 and 1943. That’s about 6.6% of the population. Its aim was to provide breadwinners with jobs. WPA workers built streets and roads, the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, the dams and waterworks of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Camp David, among other things.

WPA workers paving Moss Street in New Orleans. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was World War II that finally led to economic recovery for the States, but it is worth asking how much the post-war boomtimes were fueled by the great infrastructure the country enjoyed.

We sure could use 8.5 million people working on our roads now. About 32% of urban roads and 14% of rural roads are in poor condition. Our battered and worn infrastructure is a real problem for our economy. It is a concern of companies deciding where to locate, not to mention a hindrance to commerce and a time vortex for individuals.

And we don’t just need to fix what we have. We need to add broadband capacity for everyone, more bike lanes and public transportation options, renewable power generation projects, charging stations for electric vehicles, and some potentially staggeringly large water projects if we want the West to remain habitable. We also badly need to build more levees, straight-up move some communities, and mitigate for wildfires throughout the West, and, apparently, Florida.

WPA bridge. Courtesy National Archives.

Experience keeps teaching us that infrastructure is an essential investment, not wasteful spending. In New Orleans, the levees failed, in Minnesota, the bridge collapsed, in the Northeast, the power went out, and it takes a freight train between 26 to 30 hours to get through Chicago. Maybe that’s why nobody could get toilet paper.

It is a lesson we seem hell bent on not learning. But it’s time we stopped pretending that you don’t have to spend money to make money.

In addition to beginning to fix our ongoing neglect-made infrastructure disaster and providing incomes for breadwinners, national service would put kids from my high-income, low-diversity town shoulder to shoulder with kids from a huge range of backgrounds. Gap years are becoming more popular in the US, but not everyone can afford to take a year to explore. Hell, a lot of people can’t afford college in the first place. National service creates a gap year opportunity for everyone, feeding colleges and workplaces a more experienced and worldly graduate.

CCC enrollees planting willow sprouts. Image courtesy National Archives.

And national service doesn’t have to just be about infrastructure. Childcare is a huge problem in the US, especially in low-income communities. Social workers, addiction counselors, school teachers, safety-net hospitals — they’re all desperate for help. We could bring back the candy-striper! And, of course, in the immediate term, there is all that contact tracing and testing to be done.

These things, too, are investments that benefit our economy, if, perhaps, less directly.

In April, the US lost 20.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate was 14.7%. To get to the 6.6% of the population employed by the WPA, we would need to hire 21.6 million Americans over the course of the next 8 years, if my math is right. Going the route of a mandatory or at least strongly encouraged program for young people would be a vast project. Getting to CCC numbers and limiting the program to youth would be a lot easier, especially with many service corps still existing in various states and regions. But it would still be a huge undertaking.

Sometimes huge undertakings have a huge payoff.

Red Rocks Amphitheater, a WPA/CCC project still in use. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We’re still using roads, dams, campgrounds, and other infrastructure built by the CCC and the WPA more than 75 years later. These programs got the nation to work, and allowed us to go into World War II ready to fight, despite the hard times. It is impossible to calculate the economic benefit of all those projects over all these years, but it must be substantial.

The post-war years saw booming growth and creation of what we think of as the middle class in this country. At a time when both our infrastructure and our middle class are collapsing, national service is an idea whose time has come ’round, again.

Day Forty-Four: Review

It’s been a long, strange forty-four days. Jefferson County has baked. I can tell, because there is no flour to be had. Jefferson County has gardened. I can tell by all the planting I’ve seen my neighbors doing. Jefferson County has, by and large, stayed healthy. I can tell by this case summary put out by the county.

I suppose I should be relieved and feel safer for that. Instead, I mostly feel sad. Denver County, about 30 miles away, has had 202 deaths. It has had 3,892 laboratory-confirmed cases, out of a population of 619,968. That’s 0.62%. Jefferson County has had 1,160 confirmed cases out of a population of 582,881. That’s 0.19% To me, those numbers illustrate the class divide in this country. Part of the disparity is about population density, yes. And there are plenty of privileged people in the city and county of Denver. Nevertheless, these numbers speak loudly of class.

Our 44 days of staying home have clearly worked for those of us with the privilege of doing it, which is most of the foothill communities. Even for those of us who make up the socioeconomic diversity of the area are massively privileged now. The houses up here, be they humble or not so much, are far apart. Nobody shares an elevator. Most people are able to work from home, and there is a good chance they were already doing it. We complain about the crowds at our parks like it’s the local pastime, but they are paltry in comparison to the parks in the city.

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park.

In my area, I give the stay-at-home order four and a half out of five stars for keeping the privileged safe. I give it two out of five stars for keeping the underprivileged safe.

We talk about the two Americas now to reference our political and cultural alienation. But when John Edwards (yeah, I had to look that up) brought the phrase into the popular lexicon, he was referring to the class divide. That divide seems especially stark now. It is a little hyperbolic to say that it is life or death. Instead, it’s more of the same dynamic that already existed: life or increased risk of death.

And that’s without getting into the racial disparities that lie starkly exposed in the wake of the first wave of COVID19:

And so we should be a little sad as we mark this milestone of moving from stay-at-home to safer-at-home. Those of us who have been lucky and able to stay safe shouldn’t be celebrating our relative success with stay-at-home, we should be mourning, not just for the dead, not just for the bereaved, not just for the ill, but also for equality and opportunity.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

P.S.: I will be using this milestone to revise my posting schedule — a little less frequent because I want to do some more in depth pieces. Thanks.

*** Change *** I initially included the case number for the unincorporated mountain communities in Jefferson County as 14. This was wildly incorrect — I didn’t realize the chart had broken out several of the unincorporated mountain communities separately. The case count in Evergreen, my town, currently stands at 47. Thanks to Cliff Coffey over on Facebook for pointing that out.

*** Update *** The Evergreen Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are 25,000 people in Evergreen. That makes our 47 cases 0.19% of the population, the exact same rate as the county as a whole.

Day Forty-Three: The Economy

I mentioned I have been re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Like many, he writes about what makes us Homo sapiens so special. Why are we the dominant organism on the planet, and not lions, or wolves, or bears, or any number of other species that could eat us up in a few big bites?

His theory is that our secret ingredient is the ability to collectively believe in things that have no concrete reality. We started off with the gods, ghosts, and spirits. Whatever your take on God, you’d have a hard time actually, literally, physically pointing at him/her/ze/them (depending on your religion). Religion is, by definition, an act of faith. You might be able to point to something that you see as God’s or The Gods’ work in the world, but you can’t point to a physical manifestation. Maybe your prophets could, maybe you will be able to in the afterlife, but for now, it’s faith.

It’s not just God/Gods. We humans believe in lots of things that aren’t literally, physically there. We believe that our money has value beyond the paper it is printed on or the ones and zeros that represent it (at least I hope we still do!) We believe that the other side of Niagara Falls is somehow, magically Canada, even though it looks the same as this side. We believe in capitalism, communism, socialism, or whateverism.

There is no Canada. Don’t tell Justin.

That doesn’t mean that these ideas we all believe in aren’t real. It just means that they aren’t nouns in the literal sense. They aren’t people, places, or things. I can point to Cuba. I can’t point to communism. I can eat a banana. I can’t eat a ten-dollar bill, but it is somehow more valuable than the banana.

Patriotism, capitalism, communism, socialism, the value of money, God, The Gods, and Canada have real, concrete, literal consequences. Consequences that have enabled a fleshy ape with weak teeth and nails to dominate the planet. And consequences that have, on many occasions, been disastrous for individual (or large groups of) apes, not to mention other species.

All this has got me thinking about the economy. It’s another one of those things you can’t point to, but it sure does have real-world consequences! It is an idea, an act of collective imagination that allows us to cooperate on a staggering scale.

Right now, we are all watching helplessly as it tanks.

If you do a google image search for “economy,” it gives you lots of images like this, but no photos. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

But ultimately, the economy is just a consensus. It is only as good or as bad as we collectively think it is. If investors have a sunny outlook, the stock market goes up. If businesses feel good about their chances, employment goes up. The degree to which such an important idea is based on the collective subjective is a bit gobsmacking, if you think about it too much.

Except it is time to think about it too much, and be gobsmacked.

We humans are great hackers. We hack our computer networks, we hack adulting, and since at least William James, we have been deliberately learning to hack ourselves. If, as a species, we can hack one big collective idea, elections, using Facebook, propaganda, and misinformation, shouldn’t we be able to hack the economy? Can’t we use Facebook and propaganda (which, after all, is just advertising), if not the misinformation, to collectively imagine our way out of this mess?

The economy is only as bad as everyone thinks it is.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Forty-Two: Opening

Did they wash those hands, before they let them cradle that house?!?

Colorado has moved to a “safer-at-home” footing, rather than a stay-at-home order, but my county, in coordination with five other metro area counties, decided to extend the stay at home order. That extension is almost up. On Saturday, Jefferson County will take its first tentative steps to reopen.

We can’t all stay home forever. And it seems like forever is how long it is taking to roll out a massive testing operation. But how many of us are really going to feel safe enough to resume some semblance of normal activity? What if Jeffco reopens, and nobody comes?

According to Axios, Colorado cases are declining, which is excellent news. Jefferson County numbers are also declining. However, most of our neighboring states have case numbers that are still rising. And without a ton of tests, I’m not sure we can feel confident about any of these numbers.

A lot of businesses are planning on taking patron’s temperatures when they come in. This does nothing for me. We don’t know the percentage, but it’s clear there are plenty of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers wandering around. Besides, there are also people like me. I can be plenty sick, but I almost never spike a fever.

Interestingly, no one seems to be spouting any rhetoric saying “it’s safe to come out now.” Even the president has admitted that more people will die. Messaging in Colorado is that we should continue to stay home as much as possible, which I’m sure all those businesses who can reopen are just thrilled about.

So what is the responsible thing to do? I’ve said before, for me, not much is going to change. I live with a one-woman vulnerable population. But what about the rest of us? Where does one balance among supporting businesses, regaining a semblance of normalcy (we can’t all stay home, forever), staying safe, and stopping the spread?

How are you planning on negotiating this? If you are somewhere that has already opened up, what have you been doing? Leave a comment!

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.