Despite my infrequent blogging lately, I want to assure you that I’m alive and well. I’ve got some ideas brewing, but am lacking the motivation to put them down into properly formed words and sentences. I have no doubt that I’ll get my mojo back soon, so please bear with me in the mean time.
One thing that almost everyone can agree on, regardless of political belief, is that our governments are far too opaque. It’s much harder than it should be to determine who’s giving money to candidates, who is making what changes to a piece of legislation, who is requesting earmarks, etc. Some of these can only be addressed by reforms from the inside, but thankfully there are some extremely smart outsiders working to increase transparency by pushing for change and by taking matters into their own hands - thanks to publicly available data and the internet.
There are a number of groups doing this important work, and here are a few of the ones I think you should be aware of:
I consider the Sunlight Foundation the grand-daddy of government transparency projects. They’ve only been around a couple of years, but they’ve already had success in making federal government information and data more accessible to citizens. Among the projects they’re involved with: OpenCongress.org, Congresspedia.org, FedSpending.org, OpenSecrets.org, and EarmarkWatch.org.
The Personal Democracy Forum explores the intersection of technology and democracy in America, and what it means to be an active citizen in that space. Of their work, I particularly recommend checking out their techPresident website and their free downloadable book of essays on reinventing government for the internet age, Rebooting America.
Another Sunlight Foundation project, Public Markup is an experiment in opening up the legislative process to public review online. For example, you can check out the Senate Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and all of the comments people have on it.
MAPLight.org is a public database that shines light on the connection between legislative votes and campaign contributions.
GovTrack.us gives citizens the ability to track the status of federal legislation and the voting records of Senators and Representatives, among other things.
LegiStorm provides data on congressional staff salaries and privately financed trips taken by members of Congress and their staffers.
MetaVid is a public video archive of Congressional activity. It makes it easy to search for videos on a particular issue, bill, or for your representative.
GovernmentDocs.org makes federal documents more accessible and easier to share and comment on.
I was in the process of writing a long-ish post about why I’m voting for Senator Obama next month, and who knows - maybe I’ll still finish and publish it. But if you want a good idea, just go visit The Corner on the National Review Online site. The amount of pettiness, paranoia, and hate filling that page is simply appalling.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been riveted to the news the last few weeks as we watch our economy self-destruct. If you’re going solely by anecdotal evidence, or by watching the stock market indexes, things might not seem all that bad. But, if you start digging into the subject in-depth, you begin to realize just how scary our nation’s current economic problems really are.
The United States, and now Europe and other parts of the world, is very close to seeing a total freeze of the credit market. This affected just banks at first, but is now spreading into “main street”, as politicians and the media have taken to calling the rest of economy. Already, some big corporations can’t borrow money to build new factories or to buy equipment. This includes GE and McDonalds - not exactly who you would consider high-risk companies. Without intervention, this is likely to spread even further to small businesses and individuals - even those with perfect credit.
Right now, nobody knows what a given bank’s mortgage-backed assets are worth - even the banks themselves. So, everyone distrusts everyone else and refuses to lend them money in the event they are a cesspool of worthless mortgages This is, fundamentally, what the economic rescue/bailout plan is intended to address. If banks can unload their uncertain assets, trust should be restored, and it’s much more likely other banks will lend to each other. In theory, this prevents the crisis from spreading into the larger economy.
I understand people’s strong opposition to using taxpayer money to buy up bank’s bad assets. It’s not our fault, and it doesn’t seem fair that we should have to pay for their mistakes. There have been many calls to simply let bankruptcy take its course and let let free market forces take care of the problem “naturally”, but as I told one of my friends last week: we are now well past that point. Failing to head-off this credit crisis would be catastrophic. Talk of real economic depression wouldn’t be out of the question. Everyone needs to understand that.
The revised plan that was passed by both chambers of Congress and by the President last Friday is far from perfect, but it’s a start. I have no doubt that it will be revised and adapted as the conditions change. And while there’s no question that $700 billion is an enormous amount of money, it’s far less than what our nation could lose if a financial apocalypse takes place.
If you’re interested in learning more about what are likely the most important events since at least September 11th, 2001, I’ve got a couple of good places to start. First, check out last weekend’s episode of This American Life: Another Frightening Show About the Economy. If you read/listen/watch to only one thing on this crisis, please listen to this. It’s embedded below for those visiting my blog, but you can also listen to it on their site or on your iPod. I also recommend an episode from earlier this year (The Giant Pool of Money), that gives one of the best descriptions of the housing bubble I’ve ever heard.
In addition, the New York Times has a special series on the financial crisis called The Reckoning that explores the causes of the current mess.
Even if business, finance, or economics isn’t your thing, this crisis is too big and too important to ignore.