Tuesday, May 31, 2016


The computer and internet have transformed governance into something more like an international corporation than it has ever been.  But we don’t LIKE that.  Not even when the corporations do it.  Here’s a short list:

1.  Counting people and sorting them according to secret algorithms determined by the government so that no one is ever an individual and no voice is heard without enough people agreeing to affect major votes.

2.  No matter how carefully people’s incomes are monitored for taxes, there are always loopholes and secret exemptions that can be controlled by the simple change of codes and algorithms, but only certain people (rich) know what they are.

3.  People can no longer “move away.”  No travel by mass transit goes unmonitored, not just with passports and tickets, but also with no-fly lists so coarse they can’t really pick up the “bad” people who are the justification.  Constant video monitoring only works with densely populated places and always has blind spots.

4.  People are no longer anonymous.  Fingerprints, genome (not just one’s own but those of the whole family as well as your pets), dental records, serial numbers on implants from boobs to hips, face-matches, on-line public records of relationships, birth dates, and social security numbers (which were NEVER supposed to be used for identification), are only a few ways of tracking individuals.  It’s a constant preoccupation of CSI shows.

Every boundary from the 49th parallel to highway checkpoints and enrollment in kindergarten is recorded in giant databases that can be “cracked” by hackers, not necessarily for admirable purposes.  

Every order for books or cat food is noted.  I looked for new house slippers and was deluged with ads for slippers — along with porn (the traditional sex kind) of people doing the nasty while wearing slippers.  People note strange lit sky-fliers in Montana:  the drones are here.  Not the gun-ships but the snoops, too small to shoot.  The defense?  Trained eagles that knock them out of the sky.  Of course, you need government permission to train or even own an eagle.  (There are a few wild eagles that simply don’t like drones.)

No one tracks virtues.  As far as I know, no church turns in lists of their members, even the denominations that have boundaries.  (UU’s and Mormons claim everyone they think reflects well on them, even if they’re dead, and dissenters may not share the opinions.)  Most churches are semi-public so anyone can attend.  Fuzzy edges are dangerous.  This paragraph assumes there IS such a thing as virtue.  I find it even more difficult to define than Sin or Evil.

Neoliberals are self-defined as people who want to get rid of laws and regulations.  It cramps their style and reveals their marketing secret strategies.  They feel that the money for all those ports of entry, inspectors, monitors, enforcers, paper pushers is just wasted.  Of course, anyone who offers to reduce taxes is going to be popular.  At least among those who haven’t found a way to escape paying them in the first place.  (I escape by being too poor.)

The effective collaborator and enabler of all the control freaks is print:  the writing and interpreting of written laws, regulations, standards, and contracts.  I used to have the task of maintaining the Standard Code for the City of Portland for one department of the Bureau of Buildings.  Weekly I took a handful of pre-punched thin paper with fine print on it, looked for the code it was replacing, and inserted the new pages, usually more of them going in than coming out.  There were four BIG binders of this stuff, all numbered and so on.  No one had time to sit around reading the whole thing, much less keep up with the new inserts even if they knew which ones they were.

One of the crucial elements of this stuff was definitions:  what IS a citizen?  What IS a juvenile?  What IS grievous harm?  What IS insanity?  Isn’t it code so intricate and variable that no one knows it?

No matter how carefully written and interpreted, there were always clusters of lawyers challenging laws on behalf of their clients who couldn’t seem to get their ability to go underground to work.  Or had to pay an even higher tax to extortionists who guarded that strategy.

One of the smart insights into writing a law is to never write a law that can’t be enforced.  That means write it so you can tell what’s in and what’s out of the intention of the law.  (Big problem when it comes to militia and the right to bear arms.  Or even when defining religion.)  

You can’t enforce a law that interferes with with a lot of people’s desires:  That includes alcohol, hard drugs, smoking, and trafficking, whether children and women for sexual use or anyone for labor, whether in a mine, a field or a carpet factory.  They’ll find a way — probably bribery or secrecy.

BUT you can outlaw behavior by culture pressure.  When my family used to drive cross-country, the highways were white with trash.  My mother’s rule-of thumb was that anything organic could be thrown out the window, but nothing that could set a fire or puncture a tire.  Later she concluded that NOTHING could go out the window.  The change came from public notices and opinions.

For a while you were more likely to be chided for littering than for sleeping on the sidewalk.  Not anymore.  The culture shifted to resist scary signs of a failed economy, failed families, failed support for children, because the culture shifted to value greed.  In the Fifties a family was thriving if they owned a TV set.  Now it takes a huge surround-sound screen and a computer in every bedroom.  (Which presents a new monitoring and enforcing problem.)

We have not gone deep enough or wisely enough into the values that can guide us through our widening and multiple world.  Even people who have valuable things to say rarely think about any circle except their own, and that ignoring non-human living beings and even landscapes.  

One of the nastiest schisms is between the governing classes in cities and on the coasts, creating laws and practices that do not at all fit the rest of us.  The biggest trouble with their assumptions is that they don’t know they ARE assumptions.  When I write about Blackfeet, the automatic tags I get are travel and history, even though I’m writing about a real and dynamic population, my neighbors, whose history I have shared for half a century.

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