Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Freedom of Information – Act 2

(letter to elected representatives)

Please introduce legislation to expand the Freedom of Information Act to a new level. The original act made transparency the rule, and secrecy the exception, in theory. But the act allows the executive branch to keep something secret just by stating a reason why they don’t want to release it, and it also gives them the ability to be noncompliant with no repercussions.

 

What is needed now is an act that directs the executive branch to operate publicly at all times, and puts the burden on Congress to determine if something should be kept secret. The order needs to be court-enforceable. The new act needs to distinguish between (1) releasing hidden information, and (2) operating in a transparent way in the first place. Transparency in operations means every piece of correspondence, email, expenditure, and audio notes from meetings is published on the web at the moment it is created. Nothing would ever be “unveiled” (a common word used in government reporting), because nothing would have been veiled in the first place.

 

What led me to this conclusion was my recent review of the WTC building 7 report from NIST, and the public comments on the report. The NIST report may or may not be plausible, and I’m not asking for a new investigation. A new investigation under the same rules of conduct would have the same result. It is useless to pretend that the government – any government – can produce an “unbiased” consensus opinion from closely guarded evidence. It is not even necessary for the government to have any interpretation of how the building was destroyed. Instead, the government simply needs to release all evidence and let the media and citizens who have an interest draw their own conclusions. The government seized footage and other evidence, and prevented media access in all the 9/11 sites, and that fact alone is sufficient grounds to disregard any government findings. The simplest and most common explanation for keeping a secret is to protect the guilty, as you may remember from childhood.

 

Under the current system allowing the executive to keep secrets at will, we have little protection from this type of terrorist activity. There are many other buildings like WTC7, and currently building owners and local safety inspectors have no new information that will keep these buildings safe. Whoever brought down WTC7 could bring down hundreds of other buildings, perhaps all in the same day.

 

If 9/11 were to happen under an expanded Freedom of Information Act, taxpayer money would go towards obtaining copies of all footage, publishing it, sending debris and all physical evidence to universities around the county and other institutions, who could collaboratively get to the bottom of it much more quickly and accurately than government can. Naturally this would be more chaotic and many false conclusions would be circulated, but that is part of democracy. Having access to just one official story is not part of democracy.

 

You may or may not believe that office fires can make steel brittle. I don’t know – I’m not a structural engineer either. But a full transparency rule is not just about terrorist investigations – it would improve outcomes on health, transportation, energy policy, and everything else. This is one important step towards keeping expanded executive powers in check and sustaining our democracy.

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One page on why to use goal oriened planning in long range MPO plans

In this one-pager, I try to distill as clearly as possible why MPOs (Metro Planning Organizations) should adopt goal-oriented planning: because it is a conscious choice about the future.

handout200910

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Libertarian Socialist

Two main lines of thought today are libertarian and socialist. They are sometimes thought to be opposites, but actually are compatible. Libertarians believe that the free market is the best way to allocate labor and stimulate efficiency. Socialists believe we should work cooperatively and fairly, rather than allow an owning class to exploit a working class, and that a limitation on the concentration of economic power is the best way to allocate labor towards human needs.

The truth of the libertarian view can be seen easily in certain highly competitive and rapidly changing markets such as electronics, where it is fairly obvious that free competition benefits the consumer. On the other hand, highly regulated sectors like health care and public transportation do not experience a truly free market and as a result, they are stuck with rising costs and stagnating quality. In these sectors, the incentive to improve the product does not rest with those who have the power to do it – a libertarian view of that situation.

The socialist view is backed by reality in the sense that countries with the most protection against concentrated wealth have the least poverty and a high standard of living.

Those who ally with socialist thought might trust free markets in the original sense (farmers selling their wares in a marketplace), but mistrust them when they become dominated by a small number of large interests, which is also known as capitalism. Those who ally with libertarian thought might trust the general idea of protection from exploitation, but mistrust the notion that economic fairness can be legislated. Thus, both sides have a basic compatibility with the other philosophy, but mistrust the other side taken to an extreme.

A blend of these two lines of thought is what is needed today. That blend can be summarized by the rule that the public – through government – should referee the economy, but not play in the economy. To referee means to make sure the playing field is level, so a free market can thrive, and ensure it does not get dominated by monopolies. It also means the government should not be handling trillions of dollars, because you can’t both play in the game and be the referee.

Health care is a timely example of a sector that can be corrected by the combined “libertarian socialist” thinking. As aspect of the debate is whether the government should be a gigantic economic player in health care or not. One side says yes because medical decisions should not be driven by profit, and public control would give everyone equal access, and supposedly take money out of the equation. The other side says no because the free market is theoretically better at providing the best service at the lowest cost, and it keeps each person in charge of their own life, free from centralized control and possible corruption. If we think instead in terms of refereeing the economy, not participating in it, then there are many ways to create a free market system with distributed control, and also ensure fair access. Public policy would deal with transparency, fairness, truth in labeling, and upholding contracts, rather that deciding who gets paid for what. The rule that “if you insure anyone, you must insure everyone” is an example of the government playing referee – not being in the insurance business itself, but setting the groundrules for those who play. That rule helps us achieve our egalitarian objective while also remaining competitive.

As with health care, in so many other areas of the economy, the single word “referee” can help us determine the best way for the government to be involved.

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Health care: my experience of waste

(letter to the editor)

On a recent trip to a hospital, we waited and waited – and waited – for stitches. And watched as they threw out hundreds of dollars worth of supplies, and went through unneeded procedures. It was the night of “wait and waste”. My daughter didn’t need an X-ray or any other equipment. All she needed was a clean needle and thread!

If she had needed a stucco repair, she could have gotten bids, and the suppier who could do the best work the most efficiently would be rewarded, to everyone’s benefit. But instead, she needed a cut sewn up, so the supplier who could think of the most procedures to do got the biggest reward.

I hope that Senators Bingaman and Udall will work to create the kind of market competition that rewards quality and efficiency, while also ensuring everyone can get treatment. A public option that pays for results rather than for procedures appears to be a reasonable way to achieve this.

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