The Marin Post

The Voice of the Community

Blog Post


Just one tech billionaire could save our democracy

To say that the institutions of our democracy are in crisis is an understatement. I know some will laugh at that or write it off as partisan politics. But in spite of rising voices of protest on all sides on all issues, democracy is in retreat around the world as mental tribalism replaces informed decision-making, legal prudence, and often any semblance of common sense.

As political thinking degenerates into soundbite extremes, our public discourse devolves into being about “less” or “more.” Today, the far-right is working furiously to de-fund government in all forms to starve it out of existence, while the far-left (led by California state politics) is working furiously to hyper-fund government in all forms to make its will and edicts insurmountable. Though both approaches are disastrous, in this political landscape it seems that those who pursue political careers, need to be keen on how to play this game and achieve rapid personal advancement doing it.

It’s not just national politics that are screwed up

For an example of how important political tribalism has become to aspiring politicians, we need to look no further than right here in our own backyard. Let’s take 39-year-old State Senator Mike McGuire of Marin County, as an example.

Having been elected in 2014 on popular “soft” issues about legalizing marijuana and emergency preparedness, and with his BA in Political Science from Sonoma State in hand, he has quickly learned how to get noticed in Sacramento (possibly his primary skill). To do so he has thrown-in with ultra-left progressives, which include Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember David Chiu of San Francisco. If you’re looking to get your name in the news, teaming up with those two will certainly achieve it.

I realize some will argue that Senator McGuire is not playing politics but just following his beliefs. Unfortunately, as opposed to the Facebook or Nextdoor world, in the real world, it takes knowledge and experience to form “beliefs” that can address real-life challenges.

Having spent time meeting with Senator McGuire, one on one, ostensibly to discuss affordable housing, growth and planning, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that Senator McGuire is flat out clueless about real estate development, affordable housing, finance, tax credits, the related history, government housing programs, or any of the other things required to have “beliefs” about such things, much less craft legislation about such things. On top of that, he is arguably one of the most incurious people I’ve ever met. In more than an hour of discussion, he never asked a single substantive question. Smart people always ask questions.

However, in spite of these handicaps, McGuire’s miraculous transformation from Marin’s “boy next door” candidate to a member of the SF Bay Area’s new, uber-progressive “Band of Three” was consecrated when he recently wrote the following to his fellow Senators and Assemblymen about proposed Assembly Bill 1487.

First off, we want to thank all of you for your hard work on Assembly Bill 1487 (Chiu) which would create the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority (BAHFA). As you know, BAHFA would have the power to place new taxes and fees on the ballot starting November 2020, to finance the production, preservation, and protection of affordable housing, goals we all share.

Having lived in Marin for more than 25 years and having been intimately involved in community issues for most of that time, I would venture to say that Senator McGuire’s belief about the importance of creating yet another powerful, centralized government agency with free reign to propose an almost endless wishlist of “new taxes and fees” on Marin’s residents (without facing the insurmountable gauntlet the average citizen faces to propose a ballot measure) is not a “goal” that is even close to being “shared” by his constituency.

How is it then that as soon as a person gets within spitting distance of power, they lose all sense of reason and humility?

Elected officials are cut off from reality and probably like it that way

I think in great part this phenomenon is because once elected, representatives are basically unaccountable to the public. Their insulation is enabled by the lack of any reasonable feedback loop between them and their constituents and because politics is no longer the face to face business it was when we created our two to four- year election cycle. And with the cost of challenging an incumbent now totally out of reach for 95 percent of the population, the only time politicians even need care to consider what the majority of their constituents might be thinking is when they’re up for re-election.

Add the fact that election campaigns themselves are now distilled into 30-second, soundbite media ads – because the general public is just to “busy” to bother with the government they pay a fortune to enable – and you end up with elected officials only needing to align themselves with “hot” buzzwords like “affordability” and “sustainable,” to get noticed.

Yes, they now have websites and email, but the irony of the universal “access” of the internet age is that it has made politics even more of an insider’s game. With so many voices constantly barraging representatives with opinions, human nature dictates that “confirmation bias”[1] and relying on the opinions of political cronies rules the day.

This is manifested in the growing feeling that our elected representatives are not “listening.” Unfortunately, the impacts of their increased detachment from the lives of everyday people are now more acute, because our socio-economic-environmental “operating systems” have become increasingly fragile and prone to catastrophic failure.

So, against this backdrop, what can we do?

The growing priorities divide between tech wealth and what the world really needs

A paradox of our time is that in an age when we are surrounded by technological gadgetry of every imaginable kind, we simultaneously live in a world that is increasingly and fundamentally technologically obsolete. While “tech” may be rapidly enhancing the superficial aspects of our lives, our government agencies and many of our democratic institutions are becoming functionally obsolete or falling hopelessly behind the technology curve. It is reaching the point that it is unlikely they will ever catch up.

All this makes it harder for the public to know what their government is doing and for those in government who are well-intentioned to know what their constituents want them to do.

At the same time, set against the growing monetary chasm between the rich and the rest and the hubris of the expanding club of tech billionaires, deconstruction of public institutions doesn’t matter because in the tech world the pursuit of technology itself is such a Holy Grail mission that all are convinced it will somehow save the world on its own. The only problem is that as their individual wealth increases, this “mission” seems to revolve solely around childish, fantasy projects like building rocket ships to Mars and designing flying cars (just what we need, more and bigger cars all around us), or vanity projects like running for president while having zero qualifications other than the ability to self-fund one’s own, delusional marketing campaign (just what we need, another clueless “businessman” trying to save the world in his own image).

Meanwhile, these extravagances aside, most of the tech elite’s wealth is hoarded the same way it’s always been by the super-rich and spent on good-old personal consumption, which at their level means owning the world’s biggest yacht or buying an entire Hawaiian island or entire South American rainforests to use as private retreats in the name of saving the planet.

All this is happening against a backdrop of an ever-growing list of boring but essential things that need fixing right here on planet Earth, where the rest of us have to live: things like toxic pollution of everything (including our bodies), collapsing global fisheries, lack of public transportation investment, dangerously antiquated infrastructure, water scarcity, and historic levels of species extinction, not to mention the dramatic increase in “functional” poverty among the young, the elderly, and what used to be called the middle class.

This is a perfect recipe for reactionary sentiment on all sides and dramatic societal decay, and nowhere is this truer than with respect to our basic democratic processes. Still, from what I can tell, not a single one of the world’s billionaires either have a clue this is happening or could care less about it. Perhaps it’s just too tedious because there’s no way to get rich creating an “app for that.”

The politics of the public / private technology divide

In response to our rapidly evolving choice-driven, 24/7, like-it-or-not transparent world, instead of embracing change, we see government walling itself off from the public in order to defend antiquated information control systems and distancing themselves from constituents by creating seemingly endless, new Joint Powers Authorities, Special Districts, self-appointed committees and regional agencies such as the proposed Bay Area Housing and Finance Agency (BAHFA – AB 1487).

Generally, these new entities have powers specifically designed to add multiple degrees of separation between the public and those who spend the money the public pays in taxes.

Much of this resistance to fundamental change is manifested in a recent tsunami of “moat building” legislation to invent something called “regional government,” driven by those in power who wish to remain in power without democratic interference. Real democracy is, after all, demanding because it is inherently “interactive. However, in our internet age, the demand for interactivity is everywhere, all the time, and all-consuming, but government is simply not set up that way and appears to have no serious intention of adapting to our new world.

Even the internet itself has been weaponized by the government to decrease interaction with the public. More often than not, now when I call my city or any government agencies, I get an AI voice answering system directing me to their website, instead of a live human being. We should understand that this is not by accident or because everyone at that agency is so “busy.” They are simply not staffing up to address public interaction.

But this is also a reflection of government’s technological deficiencies.

Take, for example, government records systems. From a technological point of view, government records are a hopeless mess. Responses to a Public Records Act request, if responded to at all, consist of receiving reams of disparate documents, records, emails and thread fragments that take a team of forensic analysts to make sense of. At the same time, PRA responses are taking longer than ever and met with longer and longer lists of excuses about “privileges” as to why requested information should not be produced.

But that’s small potatoes. Trying to pierce the spending records of major government agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) or The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is nearly impossible without a team of full-time attorneys.

Another example is public opinion polling. Today governments rely on overly-simplistic online surveys or on consultants from “polling” consultants to find out what people are thinking. Aside from the fact that the law of “garbage in, garbage out” applies in both cases, in the first instance, online surveys typically fail to reach a majority of local voters and there’s usually no way to verify if the responders are who they say they are, or even how many times they’ve responded (if they clear their browser cache after each time they respond).

In the second instance, professional polling has the same lack of breath of respondents and is based on the dismal science of “random sample selections and sizes”, theoretical adjustments for a variety of “lifestyle factors”, and inscrutable calculus about “margins of error.” But, why are they still doing this when the technology to produce reliable, comprehensive, real-time data exists and results can be known instantly and with absolute certainty?

Archaic political institutions are part of the problem

By and large, elected representatives fail to understand that the 21st century, tech-enabled world, is indicating that their role as “deciders” of what’s best for us is obsolete, particularly on the local and state level, and that cumbersome, voter-prohibitive physical voting locations that are only open on one working day during the week, are archaic. Technology has also rendered many of our political institutions unnecessary (e.g., convention “delegates, the Electoral College, etc.,) and made proprietary Caucus and “Party” politics look downright Byzantine.

Consider that we only have two, powerful, “central committee” controlled political parties, while Facebook has 71 gender identification options.

So, while politicians argue about gerrymandering and how districts should be drawn so that voting results are “fair,” few seem to realize that our whole concept of “districts” itself is woefully outdated and dysfunctional.

Ironically, the more politicians hold on to these calcified institutions, the more they are dragging our democracy down with them.

However, the most important question to ask in all this is, does our system of having elected representatives only checking in with constituents every two or four years, for the sole purpose of being re-elected, really work at all anymore in our new, instant information age? Does the ability to email your representative only to receive a canned response letter from a lowly intern really enough to address the anachronistic nature of the system our democracy is relying on?

Email newsletters and websites that everyone is so proud of are just tinkering with democratic institutions that were created in a time when it took a week to get to Washington D.C. on horseback, while everything else is being rapidly undermined and displaced by a completely different paradigm – real-time interactivity, all the time.

The pre-internet and the post-Internet world

Human history is now divided into two major epochs: the Internet Age and the Pre-Internet Age. We can think of the Internet Age as the invention of writing or the invention of the printing press times a million billion. There has never been anything like it.

There has probably been no event more psychically seminal other than the rise of human consciousness on the African Savana a couple of million years ago. The internet is more than just “tech.” It is potentially the world’s first global consciousness network: the first time that the world is united 24/7 in real-time. All economic, political, and educational institutions must either adapt or die, so it behooves everyone to know what side of history they’re living in.

Unfortunately, at the moment, it’s starting to feel like it’s all for the worst. The constant barrage of information and news and opinions and crisis’ has become overwhelming. At the same time, much of the internet’s potential and the investment in it is currently being wasted on nonsense, vapid entertainment, and the emotional drivel of human existence.

In some ways, all this is also extremely unsettling and even threatening. If we are truly meant to be our brother’s keepers, to educate ourselves on everything going on in the world around us, or even our local world, there sure is a lot of “family” out there to take care of.

A return to our primary founding principle: “one man (person), one vote”

In the Internet-enabled world, it is commonly accepted that “community” is more defined by shared interests and beliefs, than by physical location, which means that politics is now for the first time truly local and global, simultaneously. Yet, as noted above, the downside is that left unattended this is prone to engendering tribalism, lying, and manipulation.

That considered, how does democracy endure or thrive in this new world?

Massive public education certainly would help (the existence of the Internet on its own, has not instantly translated into widespread public education as its original tech gurus had hoped). But more to the point of this article, how can “connectedness” help decrease the degrees of separation between decision-makers and those who live under those decisions, in a positive way?

This line of inquiry brings us, inevitably, back to the most fundamental instrument of our democratic system: voting. I’m not talking about getting out the vote or securing voting from hackers, though both are of course important. I’m talking about re-enabling the “public / government” feedback loop so it is close as possible to “real-time.”

This brings us to the challenges of having a real-time, one person, one vote public feedback mechanism by which all registered voters in a city, or county, or state, or the entire U.S. can instantly provide feedback on any issue at any time and the results instantly made publicly available.

Imagine if a government agency could solicit instant, reliable feedback at any time about anything. It doesn’t even matter if the results are binding or not. Its value to both government and the public at large would be beyond estimation. Now, that would be democracy and something of inestimable value to invest in. And in circumstances like the one's we find ourselves in now, I highly doubt that the majority of California voters want the state to dismantle our local zoning laws or outlaw single family zoning (as so many political insiders claim they do).

But who would make that investment?

The story of Estonia

It seems to be widely believed that the idea of having reliable, real-time voting is a fantasy and would be impossible to achieve. Yet, the technology required to do this not only exists but is already being implemented, elsewhere.

Earlier in this decade, the tiny country of Estonia (1.3 million people) launched a digital initiative to bring together all aspects of civic life under one simple but digitally comprehensive, user-controlled data system called “X-Road”. They describe X-Road in this way,

The 21st-century citizen-centred state and service-oriented society requires information systems to function as an integrated whole to support citizens and organisations. There must be interoperability between different organisations and information systems.

They call this system “e-governance.” The country’s website notes,

Estonia is probably the only country in the world where 99% of the public services are available online 24/7. Thanks to a safe, convenient and flexible digital ecosystem, Estonia has reached an unprecedented level of transparency in governance and built broad trust in its digital society.

X-Road is built upon the most durable, transparent and unhackable technology presently available: Blockchain. X-Road is all-inclusive and integrates and allows interoperability between public records, medical records, financial records and transactions, business and legal records and transactions, personal data, and it enables real-time voting at any time from anywhere.

Estonia officially estimates that its data integration systems save its population of 1.3 million people 1,400 years of working time every year. That means a similar system in California would save our 40 million people about 43,000 years of working time every year!

For this discussion, let’s just consider X-Road’s proven ability to enable one person, one vote in real-time, which it calls its “i-Voting” system.” The country’s website explains,

i-Voting is a unique solution that simply and conveniently helps to engage people in the governance process. Internet voting, or i-Voting, is a system that allows voters to cast their ballots from any internet-connected computer anywhere in the world. During a designated pre-voting period, the voter logs onto the system using an ID-card or Mobile-ID, and casts a ballot. The voter’s identity is removed from the ballot before it reaches the National Electoral Commission for counting, thereby ensuring anonymity.

Best of all, Estonia’s technology platform is available to anyone who wants to purchase or lease it. What could be easier than that? The hard part, the expense of all the software research and development, is already done.

So what stands in the way?

If we look at what people actually do versus what they say, the answer to that is just about everybody. Clearly, tech billionaires have no interest in doing this, since there’s nothing I’ve said they don’t already know. If they had an interest, they’d already been doing it.

However, probably the biggest opposition to the concept of one person, one vote is our government and our elected representatives. As best I can tell, their opinion is that the very idea of it would be insanity. I can hear them now. “How could we possibly allow the people to make decisions on the lofty and complex matters that only we are qualified to decide?”

Well, for one thing, perhaps because most of our elected officials aren’t close to being qualified to make decisions on most of the things they do make decisions about. And for another thing, the truth is that 90% of the legislation our elected officials vote on is written by lobbyists, special interest groups, or their staff, and few elected officials ever bother to read the voluminous and far-reaching legislation they vote on, much less do independent research on their own about its veracity and impacts.

As far as I can tell, the only people really questioning legislation being proposed today in Sacramento are private individuals and outside organizations. And when there is push back by government itself, it’s always local agencies and officials that do it. Finally, the ego-crushing reality for today’s politicians is that, at least at the local and state level, the general public today is perfectly capable of making even the most complex decisions, and in many instances probably able to do so better than our elected representatives.

Besides, we're not talking about the public weighing in on every daily operating decision or new hire. Representative government has a central place in how we run things. But when it comes to legislation such as AB 1487, yes, the public should definitely be directly involved.

So, hopefully, by now some of you are saying, Okay, how do we start?

Baby steps

The beauty of all this is that it doesn’t need anyone’s permission to be implemented. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, one need only mash-up existing software technology with publicly available voter registration records and put an Internet face on it, to have a robust system in place to show politicians what people really think.

Will this change the world overnight? No. Will it instantly be embraced by government for the value proposition it obviously is? Don’t hold your breath. But, that’s not important.

Having a reliable, verifiable, real-time voting system like this in place would enable the world to compare the general public’s wants to what they’re elected government is telling them is good for them. My guess is the results would be striking and the political pressure it would produce would be impossible to ignore. I have no doubt that if this system existed in California, our government would have no choice but to eventually adopt it.

But who will step up and fund it?

Perhaps the least attractive thing about implementing a system such as this, for those in the Silicon Valley world of hyper-hyperbole, grandiosity, and just plain bullshit, is that it’s just not sexy enough to attract the interest of the financially-obsessed V.C. and tech billionaire crowd. I can hear them now. “Why do this? How will it monetize users? What’s the exit strategy?”

However, if someone like a Tom Steyer really wants to make a difference in how our democracy works, he could implement this for a fraction of what he’s wasting trying to play a role in national politics. Steyer’s presidential campaign is based on a slogan, “To make our democracy work for regular people, again.”

Well, here’s a chance to actually do that.

As radical as this idea may seem to some readers, it is probably inevitable. The only way to restore our bottom-up democracy, which is the source of all our wealth, will be to return as much as possible to one person, one vote. This would also restore value to the job of being an elected representative because it would require hardworking, highly intelligent and articulate statesmen and stateswomen, who can craft legislation that serves the public’s interest and who can explain that legislation in plain language and educate and persuade the public to support it.

One tech billionaire could change everything.

[1] the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.

Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.