Moral Hazard or simply the Pursuit of Democracy?

Disclaimer:  I’m not a political scientist. I’m a technologist who participates in LGBT activism.   My day job is at Microsoft,  and I am on the Board of GLEAM.  I participate in and lead democratic technical policy bodies. Because of my corporate association, I am periodically called a tool of hegemony by self appointed Jedis. I hate that.  I am however, aware of the existence of the reality distortion field that surrounds Redmond in a bubble.  I am not a fan of the National Equality March. I would rather people in Washington State stay here and help Approve Referendum 71.

Plug:   Please help protect Washington State Domestic Partnerships.  Contribute to Approve Referendum 71. http://approve71.org/donate

Adam Bink, in You Made the Bed, Now Sleep In it (Alone)?, raises the question:

"Is it right that Cleve made what many consider a mistake, soaked up people and money and other resources that need to go to Maine and Washington State and the Corzine race and Kalamazoo and possibly California and elsewhere, and now others have to rescue it?" Is this Moral Hazard?

This is an interesting and thought provoking question.  Whether or not how we react to the organizing of the march is Moral Hazard or not, there is something else to consider first.

I laughed pretty hard at the outlandish accusation labeling Adam as an "Uncle Tom".  Nonsense.  However, there is an implicit assumption in Adam’s post that because "many" folks in his circle believe that the march is a bad idea that the marchers are the cause of the potential Moral Hazard.

Cleve and his partners could look at the situation in a reciprocal way.   The current leaders are pursing a strategy which is not as effective as we would like, or worse.  Are we, the LGBT "people" following them down a course and as a result, falling into the same Moral Hazard trap?  Instead, why not avoid  that trap by pursing a different, and we believe, more successful strategy like a National March on Washington?

As Mr. Bink states, the real issue here is orthogonal to an opinion on the march itself.

The key issue, in my opinion, is the lack of a voice that your everyday LGBT person, lets call him Chris Cocktail, has in our leadership’s decision-making process.  Efforts like the March, and the post prop 8 rallies are a rebellious quest for democracy in the face of a perceived oligarchy.

Why are  "the many" Mr. Bink refers to entitled to make decisions on our behalf any more so than Cleve and his partners?  I don’t recall voting.

Are we living the values we demand from others?

I attended a few of Mike Lux’s talks in support of his book, The Progressive Revolution.  There’s something he said which nags at me relating to our mission regarding equality.  When the founders (who were elites) of our country sought equality, one thing that concerned them was that this equality might go too far and result in uneducated, non-property owning men, or *gasp* women being allowed to vote too.

As a minority seeking equality in the form of equal treatment and representation by our leaders in government, we hold their feet to the fire on the principle of "all people being created equal".

Those statements beg the same question of accountability to our movement.  Are we really representing the needs of our entire community, or just a subset?  Are we really governing with full consideration for segments of our community like the Transgendered?  Or people who live in Arkansas? Or people who live in Washington State? Or people who live in Indiana?  Or Bill’s who have tragically lost  an "l"?

Other communities do it

My day job is to participate in technical policy setting bodies.  These bodies operate under democratic processes where representatives from various constituencies participate and vote on the issues of the day.  The output of this work is usually called something like Industry Internet Standards.  Examples most people have heard of are HTTP, HTML, or CSS.   Just like in real life, there are 3 main levels of this policy setting.  There are industry standard generating bodies where representation is by company (states), national (federal) standard generating bodies such as ANSI, and international (like U.N.) standard setting bodies such as ISO.  What this means is that at least in theory, technical policy is set democratically by a congress.

truth to power

Q: How many Microsoft employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: None, they just declare darkness the new standard(tm)

When a small set of large companies, let’s call them Tech, Inc., who are deep-pocketed and very powerful, unilaterally set a policy that the whole industry will have to abide by, people get uncomfortable.  If those policies are adequate, fair and or generally beneficial to moving the industry forward, people accept it.  However, when they are not, there are problems.

Eventually people decide that if everyone has to live with these decisions, they should be made democratically.  Policy decisions should be decided by a vote.  Where issues need to be decided by a committee of experts, or congress, those experts should be elected.

When a single or small set of organizations decides whether or not to include Transgender in an ENDA policy, not everyone is going to be happy.

two guys and a dog

In my circles of standards wonks, there are many snarky opinions on the different policy bodies and how they operate.  Some require that a large cross section of the industry participate in order to label the output a Standard policy. Others do not.  There are a few, which I wont mention by name, which simply require a small number, say 2, companies, a small fee, and successful execution of the process to produce something called a Standard.  So two guys, a dog, and $25 can turn the crank on the process and then claim to be the arbiter of Industry Standard policy and demand that others follow.

Watching Milk was the first time I became aware of Cleve Jones.   Reading up on him, and watching Bilerico’s interviews with him was educational.  aside from being deeply involved in the Harvey Milk story, which is a pivotal event in our history, he’s done some other amazing things.  Cleve conceived the idea of the AIDS Quilt.  He started the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.  He’s been deeply involved in HIV/AIDS activism to a level most of us could only dream of.

Having said that, it does seem like he just stepped out of the woods and onto the public stage and declares, metaphorically with only a friend and a dog, a new LGBT national organization, agenda, with the first duty for all of us being to attend a March on Washington.

Personally, I share in the frustration that our policy agenda is achieving as much as we would like it to.  More importantly, I’m beginning to wonder whose priorities are driving that policy agenda.  Do they represent me?  Does the March?  No.  These also are not the droids I am looking for.

technology == empowerment.

It’s pretty clear that today’s world, technology elements like the blogosphere, facebook, twitter, and others empower individuals to take action.  Like the bloggers have done to mainstream media, and digital music has done to music and movie labels, dis-intermediate the system.  This middle-man is so last millennium.  Direct action is supreme.   If you’re reading this post and you haven’t been living under a rock, I’m not saying anything new here.

Politics, as most arenas eventually will, is being dis-intermediated.  People can achieve direct results without going through "official channels".  If I don’t like what a campaign is doing, I can do my own thing.  If I play my cards right, I might even be able to change, or even take away, the public discussion from what the "official channels" want.  However, since I am a technologists with good instincts rather than a political scientist with 20 years experience, it could be a unhelpful to the battle I am fighting. For an example of a potential moral hazard situation, see WhoSigned.org and how it has affected Referendum 71.

Many examples of this are playing out today and the National Equality March is just the latest.     If one has the power to effectively run their own campaign, but is told to sit back and defer to others, its appropriate to ask for a voice in the decision making process.  If one doesn’t get a say in the policies they need to live by independent rebellious action follows.

power to the people, viva la revolucion!

Who gets to make the decisions?

The questions I would pose back to Mr. Bink are:

If an intensely diverse and competitive industry composed of bitter corporate enemies can agree to a democratic policy setting process then why can’t our community?

Can we insert some transparency in the decision making process and some structural changes to it to allow the Chris Cocktails to have more of a say?

Is it possible for us to have a unified federal policy platform defined by democratic means?

If it is possible, then how would we even begin to create such a structure?

Can we have an "LGBT Congress" composed of qualified, educated, and experienced, elected representatives of the various constituencies and existing organizations that make decisions by vote?

Can major decisions like "Trans-inclusive ENDA or not?" be put to a vote with existing internet technologies?   If LGBT folks registered to vote with the LGBT Congress could they vote online?

Democracy is a messy business.  There are many risks to making some changes to our community’s decision making structure, even incremental ones, to make them more of a democracy.  Often it seems that the participants would rather play with voodoo dolls of their fellow committee members than agree on anything.     We’ve all heard:

Democracy is, the worst possible system of government… except for everything else.

At the end of the day, after the long speeches and debates, a vote is taken which represents a joint decision.  Even if one doesn’t agree with every decision, you win some you lose some, but its our decision and we need to support it.

If we’re not willing to commit to working together and share both power and responsibility, then uncoordinated independent action will become  the common case rather than the exception.  This is where we are headed unless we change course.

Right now people like Cleve and other grassroots efforts don’t have much of a say in our national policy strategy.

To tie this back to Mr. Bink’s post, though not answering his question:

If the march proves to be a disaster, and is a setback for the movement, no matter what we all do, to some extent we all share a degree of responsibility for not having a more inclusive and democratic decision making process.

The only real way we can align on any strategy is if we all get a say.  How to we do it?

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Joshalot