Saturday, May 30, 2009

Internet-based Democracy?

I see from the morning paper (LA Times, 5/29/09) that the Los Angeles Unified School District is canceling most of its summer programs due to budget cuts. According to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, this action "will contribute to the dropout rate and...a less competent workforce."

Is this really the result intended by California voters who trashed the propositions during our recent election? Presumably, even conservative business owners, who typically oppose tax increases, would like to have employees who can read and write. Doesn't the general populace also want serviceable roads and bridges, medical care for kids, programs for people with disabilities, etc.?

Historical political analysis demonstrates that people will frequently vote for LOCAL taxes when they know exactly how such revenues will be used and when they perceive some benefit to their immediate community. Therefore, to some extent, our current predicament over funding of vital public functions results from the (possibly unintended) migration of these functions to the "highest" levels of government -- almost by definition, those seats of government power farthest removed from the average citizen.

Clearly, the national defense must be funded and organized by the federal government. So, too, must interstate commerce be regulated, and certain minimal standards of behavior (e.g. food and drug safety) be established, in our nation's capital. I don't pretend that the list of items appropriate to the federal government is short; imagine the chaos that would ensue, for example, if nobody actively regulated securities transactions. (Oops, we already know the answer to that!) But many things are better left to the states and local governments.

Readers may argue that we already have this system. It's not the federal government, after all, that picks up our trash and makes land use (zoning) decisions. But, at least in California, several significant problems still exist: 1) cities, counties, special assessment districts, and school districts have limited taxing power; 2) State and Federal taxes collectively "eat up" such a large chunk of disposable income (at least by current subjective standards) that additional local taxation may become less desirable than it otherwise would be; and 3) no mechanism exists for the average citizen to weigh in on local and regional policy decisions on a frequent basis.

But if we can vote on who should become the "American Idol," why can't we vote on whether to keep schools open during the summer? Surely the technology exists, or could easily be developed, to allow Internet voting only among those who ought to be eligible for such local plebiscites. (Yes, allowances would have to be made for non-Internet users and those without cell phones -- surely a gradually decreasing percentage of the population.) Then, maybe, we could stop hearing about "what percentage of our tax dollars sent to Washington we 'get back'" and start voting to fund those projects dear to our local hearts.

Note: I am aware that it's easier to write a blog post on this subject than to change the way our American political system works. That's the beauty of writing a column -- I can spew forth random ideas and let others point out the flaws and work out the details! Reader comments welcomed, as always!

P.S. One of my astute readers pointed out in his comment to last week's post that standardized tests have some advantages. I totally agree, and it was careless of me to imply otherwise. Let's use such tests when appropriate. But what would be wrong with random sampling, if our purpose is to ascertain general levels of accomplishment? To my knowledge, we don't use the results of standardized testing to prescribe individualized educational programs anyway. If sampling were introduced, perhaps we could avoid or at least reduce the counterproductive and widespread "teaching to the test" that the current system engenders. Also, let's not forget that the methodologies of modern social science permit valid and reasonably accurate ways of measuring many different types of data -- subjective as well as objective. Why settle for measuring only what's easy; let's also measure what's important. If we seriously want to know how public schools are affecting attitudes toward lifelong learning, or ability to reason, we have the capacity to find out. The problem is, I'm not sure many people really want to know.


  1. The problem with such hyperlocal financing is that it creates massive and much harder to eliminate poverty. Rich areas would have expansive services at low tax rates, and poor areas would have few services at high tax rates. The only way to prevent this is to tax at a higher level of government and distribute not based on geography of where money comes from. And then we get back to where we started.

  2. huadpe, I was hoping someone would bring up this issue. I agree that this would be a problem given our current social and economic structure. It is, of course, the reason that public schools in California are currently funded at the state level. Historically they were funded from local property taxes, and the courts declared this illegal for precisely the reason you stated. SO, might this be a reason to work toward more income and wealth equality?

  3. Well, how would you do so exactly? There are two ways to promote equality of income, taxation and redistribution, or wage mandates.

    We currently use taxation/redistribution to promote equality, with wealthier people paying higher taxes and poorer people getting more government aid. This requires action from high (state/federal) levels of govt.

    What you seem to be proposing is something more in the order of wage mandates. Wage mandates that are strongly equality creating are horribly bad. Let's say we mandated that wages be between $20 and $40 per hour. That's ±$20k/yr from the current national median. Well, first, everyone who was not sufficiently productive to create $20/hr of extra income for an employer would be fired right away. This would disproportionately affect currently poor people since they tend to have fewer marketable skills. On the other end of things, you'd see vast drops in productivity from people who could produce huge amounts of goods/services per hour. Someone making $200k/yr before the controls would know she would keep her job just by producing 2/5 as much as before, and has no reason to work harder, since she wouldn't be paid more.