Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Beekman Center has a post up questioning the faddish popularity of "crowd-funding," asking whether fund-raising for public projects through your networks can really replace the proper function of government taxaction.
I totally agree that crowdfunding cannot replace civic projects that the government should be funding -- and funding through the democratic process of elections and then appointments and allocations of funding to public works. Ethan's vision for government is never quite articulated, but it seems to be a kind of socialist centrism levened by Soros private funding of progressive nonprofits -- the real debate, of course, is what kind of government and how much taxation.
I reject the civic crowdfunding notions for other reasons than Ethan, however, because I'm concerned about elite leftist and socialist cadres using the accelatorating and amplifying power of social networks to inflict their views on society when they are not elected and not democratic.
Oh, you say, isn't that what America is all about, the conflicting interests of a zillion special interest groups, nonprofits, civic projects, etc? Well, sure, but sometimes we drill down and find it's really only about Soros or the Koch brothers, you know? Doesn't anybody realize that many of the vaunted Kick-starter campaigns in the millions benefit from anonymous rich guys in Silicon Valley, not just thousands of bike messengers building aps donating $5?
Big projects like a streetcar or the Low-line are projects that don't get supported for all kinds of reasons, and some of them good, i.e. not only due to evil special corporate interests "buying government," etc. Maybe not everyone wants the noise and traffic in their area. Maybe not everyone thinks it's sustainable to build big projects underneath Manhattan. While the process to get projects funded and built is "bureaucratic," it is also, at the end of the day, democratic, tied to a democratic voting system. The "vote" of the "net-roots" with its millions of signatures or millions of "crowd-funded" dollars can appear very large and powerful, but it is not a fair vote of the real public.
As flawed as representative government is -- and the tekkies usually find it completely "broken" -- it's still a hell of a lot better than rule by coders and cadres via social media with only one "progressive" perspective. That has to be opposed.
Why should I have endless noise, construction, expense, displacement of business, etc. through something like the Low-line just becuse a handful of hipsters have a huge network that means maybe Jeff Bezos can buy something cool? This is the problem -- the O'Reilly-ification of civic spaces as he and others like him get their hands on the "civic stack" of apps and then go further, to urban projects they find "awesome."
It might seem "awesome" and all about "direct democracy" to some if local kickstarted projects get funded across national and international networks this way, but it is not about authentic democracy, it is only about democratic centralism.
There's also the very real problem that Kickstarter is terribly elitist. It's a closed club. The founders vet and pick the projects they will display for funding and decide which ones get promoted for more funding. There is criticism that they also hide the failures. This is perfectly acceptable behaviour in a nonprofit or private foundation with boards of trustees and fiscal responsibility and filers of 990 tax returns. They can pick and chose their projects -- and the answer if you don't like them is to publicly protest, start another nonprofit, or complain to the government about their tax exemption if they are politicized.
But Kickstarter affects to be "the crowd" or "the people" with this notion of "crowd-funding". It isn't -- it's just elite networks in a netocracy -- but it covers itself with that mantle of "public-ness" -- and without the transparency and accountability of a private foundation (donations can be anonymous and there are no by-laws or procedures or minutes of any meetings deciding what projects to do).
It's not just that wealthy neighbourhoods where hipsters live would get favoured over poor (and not yet cool) neighbourhoods, or formerly middle-class neighbourhoods now declining and becoming uncool.
It's that the cadres get to decide everything, and that's not democratic or fair. The outcome is predictable -- just like it is with the "civic apps" in New York City with all the hustling of the hipsters -- apps for finding bars, designated drivers and condoms, but not apps for finding toilets, safe parks or farmers' markets.
Ethan's list of concerns works to solve the problem of forcing government to be more "progressive" and take on the burdens of "progress". But it undermines democracy and pluralism of different contending political forces and thus is not out of touch with the real world where the Republican Party and even the Tea Party go on existing and organizing. Ethan blithely lauds the Black Panthers' programs of providing child nutrition and education, without subjecting this to any critique as typical patronizing and ward-heeling, or noting the really serious problem of rapes, murders, and drug dealing in the history of the Black Panthers. I'd also want a second opinion as to whether the radical Black Panthers are really providing programs that aren't provided by the government -- which today provides enormous numbers of social programs via nonprofits in New York City, for example -- or whether they are pursuing a political agenda with tendentious claims. I'd also prefer to get social services, as flawed as they are, from elected governments, and not radical and destructive movements like Occupy Wall Street, whose communal table's health certificate is not just "pending" but absent altogether.
The idea of letting crowdfunding be the design and not the implementation is that it takes the steam out of the notion of crowdfunding bringing actual projects to real fruition that the funders themselves can use, and leaves it -- again -- in elite virtuality. If a streetcar project misses its million-dollar marks and makes $3600, it never has to justify itself with authentic democracy and real public critique, it can just slip into the netherworld of "design."
The idea of having leveraging of existing opportunities, i.e. to get more participation from Latinos, does make sense and in fact follows the example of historical philanthropy in America, which is more about enabling individuals to pursue opportunities rather than become dependent, and enhancing rather than replacing government.
The movement of crowd-sourcing, civic apps, etc. is really a political movement trying to take power outside of democratic channels, masquerading as "the public". It most certainly is not the public.
Then there is the problem of Ethan's blithe Obamaism -- worrying about the "gotcha" that rightly came when the president said "small business successes depends, in part, on government-funded intrastructure" -- a socialist fantasy that implies that the state is prior and public funds are prior, and that they don't in fact derive their funds and legitimacy *first* from people's entrepreneurship and labor.
First people make businesses and make a profit and hire workers, *then* people pay taxes, you know? That's not a page out of Ayn Rand but ordinary liberal democracy and the free enterprise system. The government *comes from* people paying taxes. It's not as if the revenue pool the Obama Administration sits on has no history and comes from the sky. If small business then uses water, roads, public education for workers, etc. it's because it has *first* generated revenue and *then* paid taxes. There's something terribly skewed and scary about "progressives" not getting these basic truths to start with and respecting them organically.
There's also a basic mythology of scare tactics here on the left. Michael Ignatieff writes in a revie of Michael Sanders' book The Price of Everything that the wealthy rent the wombs of poor Indian women to have babies. Yet the overwhelming majority of people still have their own babies, and this exploitation of Indian women is surely an exoticism (if it's some huge offshore trafficking scheme I haven't heard of, let's see the credible human rights report).
Here's the reality that Internet "progressives" can't seem to grasp.
Last time I checked, I could walk or ride a bike for miles on the Hi-Line walkway on the West Side or the Stuyvesant Cove on the East Side, go to play ball or picnic in nice parks in fact free of garbage or needles; swim on public beaches; go to the library and take out for free the books available or order reserves from other libraries. I could go to free public lectures and movies. My children go to school for free and pay a quarter for lunch; all around me are kids who take out even tens of thousands of dollars of city school loans with little expectation that they will pay them back or even stay in college.
The "progressive" beliefs on display in blogs like this behaving as if the rich have taxed themselves only to provide sidewalks in their gated communities and left poor people in slums lets me know that they don't live down here with the rest of us -- all day long, we walk on public sidewalks and use public services that come out of our taxes. When was the last time the Kick-starter hipsters went to the public library instead of downloading books on their Kindles or went to a public park to the sprinklers with their children instead of to their apartment complex gym?
In fact, if it comes to it, I will be treated in a public emergency room without payment up front, and even as an immigrant I can expect a minimal old age pension and health care. If any politician seeks to change any of these runaway costs, he'll be accused of "social Darwinism".
Rapid, light-weight groups depend on the time and resources of somebody and therefore are paid for somewhere by someone -- Soros? And the enlightened "self-interest" is just that -- selfish, without any debate about what is really enlightened.
The problem with the netocracy is that they are merely like that wealthy community taxing itself for the sidewalks the poor will be discouraged from walking on, but merely having displaced their community to an attenuated network where they martial the resources of their class to make political warfare on localities. It's all the worst features of Citizens United that the left imagines are practiced by the right.
Ethan invokes the campaigns against SOPA/PIPA and Komen, which for him, with his politics, illustrate lovely "social change". Social change is always about other people changing, you know?
But these hate campaigns represent very troublesome erosions of democracy and freedom for others. The ugly vilification of a Komen that had the misfortunate to publicly debate among themselves the question of using money they themselves had raised for breast cancer on abortions is downright scary. It means only the "progressives" get to "crowd-fund" and other nonprofits can't do as they wish with regular tax-deductible donations. It means that any flash mob can bully any self-organized civic group in society and force them to do their political bidding. We're seeing the same now with the Boy Scouts and Chick-fil-A -- there is no awareness on the left that civil society depends on the First Amendment and the ability of groups to ensure that some other group's freedom of association doesn't trump their own -- and their own freedom of expression.
The left seems to think that if another group in society has opinions and law activities they don't like, they get to harass them on Twitter until their CEO resigns or their VP of marketing dies of a heart attack.
SOPA-PIPA didn't come to a vote; Google-funded and Mitch-Kapor funded lobbies flashmobbed Congress and called it civics. Geeks and hipsters are obviously pleased with this flexing of their social muscle, but it is only that -- it is not pluralistic democracy with democratic voting.]
Can these ideals be restored? I imagine once the right picks up more steam using the same social media tools for their own political campaigns and "crowd-funding" that we will see more appreciation of them on the left.