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January 2009

Social Media, Solidarity, and the Politics of Personal Risk for the Public Good

Why did bomber crews enter the aircraft to fly a mission where only half the crews were expected to return? They said it was because their buddies went on board. When we think about social media for social change we cannot underestimate the importance of small unit solidarity. When the times get hard and the odds long we will step forward, each with a few civic friends, because we would be ashamed not to.  That will be a big change from how it is now, where each calculates the individual odds and decides to lay low, seeing others do the same. When many act in concert, out of shame of being a coward, the risks are real, but less, and the results no longer readily predictable, even by those who keep an eye on such things.

Wage Controls for Wall Street?


Obama expressed outrage earlier this week after the New York state comptroller reported that Wall Street firms disbursed $18.4 billion in bonuses last year as the U.S. sank into a recession. While the figure represents a 44 percent decline from the previous year amid record losses in the securities industry, the bonus pool was the sixth-largest ever, the comptroller said in a yearly report.

Politicians make low salaries but make up the difference with graft, and with revolving door jobs before and after taking office. Are we suggesting that Wall Street should work the same way, on the take and off the books? Or should the firms that take bailout money pay lower compensation than those who did not get bailed out? Will that lead to a brain drain from the bailed out companies? And if the loss of brains leads to a less efficient firm, will we bail the dummies out again? Seems that the only real solutions are systemic. Maybe a year of unpaid job corp service for every year an executive makes more than one million? Make philanthropy mandatory at a 55% rate above one million a year in compensation? 

Teaching Philanthropy Peer to Peer with Social Media

Beside a flaming ash can, half drunk and half mad, the Happy Tutor, my former mentor, holds classes for the homeless on philanthropy out behind Wealth Bondage, now owned by the tax payers, after its recent bailout.  I wish I had the Happy Tutor's moral courage, or his gift for the aphorism, or his ability to sleep naked in the street without apparent discomfort. Instead, a Professor in real life, my role is to communicate from me to many students the lessons that they must learn, preferably by heart, lest they fail in their quest for a credential. That this is ludicrous, when the students know more than the professor, as many of my students do, should pass without comment, or I will become irate and flunk the offenders. As a child walks through a field of daisies lopping off the tallest flowers, so I with my students. 

The question I have been discussing with Jon Husband, to whom I am indebted for many links appearing on this blog over the years, is whether social media can be used to create a many to many learning community in which all are students and all are teachers. Such community would exemplify  the kind of society towards which the kind of philanthropy I love itself tends. If Tutor shows up in his leisure suit, to offend the philanthropic thought leaders into justifying the intolerable, well, that can be handled by banning Tutor from the site.

Here are links on Web 2.0 for peer to peer education that Jon shared, and a few extras. like Ning only open source and runs on your own server

Here is a link to the “constructivism,” the underlying educational theory that supports such interactive, collaborative learning.

In fact, constructivism is what Socrates, Diogenes, Jesus, Kierkegaard, and Robert Frost all practice, the maieutic method, the art of inducing the labor of childbirth in students, often male, who don't even know they are pregnant. That is also the art, I would note, of working with the wealthy around philanthropy or ideals. To bring to birth what is best in another is an act as rude as reaching under a skirt to catch the head of the baby in its first agonized cry, as the pliant skull pushes against bone, and the blood and water flow.

Creating Real Wealth after the Bubble and the Bailout of the Bubble Blowers

Democracy Now interviews David Korten:

As President Barack Obama reveals more details of his $825 billion economic stimulus plan, we turn to David Korten of YES! Magazine. In his new book, Korten argues that the nation faces a monumental economic challenge that goes far beyond anything being discussed in Congress. He writes that now is an opportune moment to move forward an agenda to replace the failed money-serving institutions of our present economy with the institutions of a new economy dedicated to serving life.

Korten's positive suggestions below are uncannily close to those arrived at by C.A. Fitts, from a conservative perspective. Korten:

I mean, basically, we need to realize we’ve been told that there are only two economic models. One is the capitalist model, and the other is the communist or socialist model. One, the capitalists own everything, and the other, the government runs everything. The real alternative is, in fact, a real market economy that looks a whole lot more like what Adam Smith had in mind, which is—which looks more like a farmers’ market. And I think—you know, we talk about Wall Street and Main Street, and really the solution is to rebuild a new economy based on Main Street, which means local businesses and people who are rooted in their community and working within a framework of community values and a set of public rules that enforce basic conditions of market efficiency.

C.A. Fitts is working from the grassroots up to divert money from Wall Street and from Washington and for that matter from the drug trade and prisons and from those who invest in both, back into local communities, so that those communities can fund sustainable ventures that create real wealth: living wealth, moral health, and a prosperous commonwealth.  She envisages a local, financially intimate sphere where neighbors work, worship, and trade with neighbors face to face, in communities sustained by both love for one another (the moral sentiments) and also through the urge to self advancement.  That was indeed the picture painted by Adam Smith.

Of course, C.A. Fitts, Korten, and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now are not heard in the mainstream media. They lie outside the circle of acceptable opinion. Shall we then use philanthropy to reward and keep alive the lapdog media? Again, why not invest in those capable of conceiving meaningful change? Whether you call it conservative or radical, the truth is that reviving American towns and cities around the principles on which this country was founded will meet with resistance (beginning with stony silence, incredulity, otracization, and ridicule) from those who have replaced that world with something better- for them. 

Still, between Korten and Fitts there are material differences, no doubt.  How far will one go in the face of resistance, when what is at stake is one's own comfort, or life? Social goods are sometimes purchased at high prices. Better to let someone else play the hero or the fool. 

Bailing out Old News Media with Philanthropic Dollars

Newspapers may seek Philanthropy to support News Gathering, by David Westphal at Knight Digital Media Center. 

The idea that for-profit media might seek subsidies from community foundations came into sharp focus last week, when the Knight Foundation awarded $5 million to 21 civic foundations that pitched plans for expanding news and information in their communities. Some of the ideas sounded much aligned with the mission statements of local newspapers and TV stations.

As papers lose to social media, perhaps the grants should go to the winners, rather than bailing out the losers? Could foundations fund citizen journalism, so that citizens close to the action might do investigative research as well as link and editorialize? A Whistle Blower Grant might turn this country around faster than any number of Genius Grants. Fund courage. Diffuse risk of retaliation across a swarm or network. Anonomyse giving through donor advised funds inside community foundations. Fund change, not charity for the old media that have done so little in the way of unsettling the status quo.  Still, the lapdog media that have served money so faithfully should hardly be allowed to starve.

Bill Gates on Foundations and Market Failure

Bill Gates from his 2009 Annual letter:

A key question for Melinda and me is, Where are foundations uniquely suited to causing positive change? Foundations are not needed in areas where capitalistic market signals work well and the poorest aren’t left out. If someone told you there was a foundation looking into what kind of restaurants should be started and helping them get started, you would rightly wonder why nonprofit dollars were being spent in that way. Foundations provide something unique when they work on behalf of the poor, who have no market power, or when they work in areas like health or education, where the market doesn’t naturally work toward the right goals and where the innovation requires long-term investments. These investments are high-risk and high-reward. But the reward isn’t measured by financial gain, it’s measured by the number of lives saved or people lifted out of poverty.

"The Cancer Stage of Capitalism," Crows He

I was interviewed recently by a magazine for the wealthy. The journalist asked me about my own upbringing. Was I born into wealthy circumstances? I tried to get her to understand that in certain circles wealth comes in far second in status to qualities like education or taste. I tried to get her to understand that as academics in the liberal arts our family disdained filthy lucre, mucky pelf and all the sordid gewgaws of the marketplace. She wrote, in the article, basically, that I come from humble origins and left it at that. Now, I wish I could have quoted her this bit from Ben Barber, an intellectual if ever there was one.  The passage carries precisely the tone on which I was raised:

Our great leaders tell us what we already know, The economy is "sour." But no worries. At the end of the day all will be well. Just keep on shoppin.' Capitalism is the only game in town. Growth for growth's sake, without any attention paid to its consequences, is producing what one Canadian writer calls "The Cancer Stage of Capitalism." And like a cancer it will keep metastasizing until it kills its host. The economic system is predicated on constant expansion and growth. The gospel of consumerism is an unsustainable paradigm. What is required is a radical rethinking of basic assumptions. Yet virtually no politician is willing to speak the hard truth to citizens. They are tinkerers at best, suggesting cosmetic changes such as buying a hybrid car and recycling paper and glass. Other than that it's business as usual.

Myself, I would forgo my intellectual superiority for a 50 cent an hour raise, or even a plant in my office.