Rather than further blind cooperation, I have begun to draw out some solutions to these issues. The solution cannot be easy. Deep-rooted systematic issues never are. However if we approach the problems holistically, if we can break down the issues piece by piece, at the very least you can begin a discussion of why I’m wrong.
1. Education: Allow me to take a moment and stop pointing fingers all over the place and take a step back. Awareness and participation are both essential, but without the institutional framework; the process will surely break down. Early in educational programming, in elementary schools, middle schools, night schools, correctional facilities, summer camps, we should teach basic government concepts. What taxes are, where they go, what they do, growing and expanding on process, and most importantly where you, the citizen, fits into that process. People should feel a necessary part of the system, not the outsider who only feels the negative effects of the system. Seeing as how government is built on the people, we should emphasize the necessity of their role. Without a constituency a politician would be a crazy person standing on a soapbox yelling about health care. The people are the oft-neglected piece of the system, mainly so those in power can wield more power over them. An informed people will at least have the ability to argue back. Empower the people, and empowerment begins with education.
2. Disclosure: If I give my room mate 10 dollars to buy a carton of milk, I don’t necessarily need to know what store he went to, what his interaction with the cashier was like, how many cartons he sifted through to find the furthest expiration date. But I would like to see the carton of milk. I would like to have my change. If necessary, I might even want to see the receipt. Why don’t we hold our politicians to the same relatively low standard? Show us where the money goes and what it does when it gets there. The release of information is such an easy way to establish trust, it makes me wary of anyone holding back. We don’t need to see how you make the sausages, but at least let us see how you’re spending our money.
3. Oversight Entity: Looking at these issues from the perspective of politicians, a perspective we should not forget or ignore, the increase in sheer magnitude of added administrative work to accomplish some of these tasks would halt their abilities to function day to day. An independent body, an agency, an organization, whose sole purpose was to administer and oversee the discretionary budgeting process is what we should rely on. Devoid of politics, absent of corruption. The physical and social infrastructure for such a body exists in various pieces around the City. The IBO (Independent Budget Office) releases reports on various city programming. The NYC Comptroller’s Office conducts and releases audits of city agencies and their programs. Citizens Union is a non profit good government group which rates and studies city politicians and their actions. There are multitudes of political clubs across the City, which claim to stand for reform and progress in local government. Each of these groups and entities, and many more unmentioned, have the capacity to build an active coalition. Each group must set aside personal ego and be willing to be a part of the solution, rather than continuously complain about the problem. Don’t let the politicians use lack of administrative resources, as legitimate as it is, as their excuse.
Maybe it wouldn’t even be such a bad idea to publicly tar and feather Larry Seabrook or Carl Kruger or Vito Lopez. An oversight entity can help ongoing investigations to root out current corruption. We should not act as though with only oversight that crime will cease. Those who we have caught, who have been rooted out as criminals should serve as an example to those thinking about a life of crime. I would never recommend a beheading and sticking someone’s head on a stake, but then again I don’t live in Larry Seabrook’s district.
4. Restructure Process Top Down: If the process of discretionary funding is transparent and the community is engaged, until we reform the system from the beginning, not much will change. We still have the power of one Councilmember deciding the fate of millions of taxpayer dollars. I will not claim to have the best and most equitable distribution formula, but I do know that it should not be in the sole possession of one person’s political discretion. Whatever the formula is – socioeconomic status, population, a measure of need, highest percentage of adorable puppies – it should be discussed and debated publicly and never left open to the powers of political patronage. Even in a perfect world with an incorruptible Speaker, with 51 honest and dedicated Councilmembers, let us all agree to never allow the potential for corruption in the first place. Cut off corruption at the top and maybe, just maybe, honesty will trickle down.
5. Civic Revolution/Malleable Revolution/Revolution 2.0: I certainly to not advocate for a violent revolution of any sort, filled with protests and gas masks and riots. Revolutions can come in all shapes and sizes, and maybe what we need more is an interventional revolution, or a revolutionary intervention. We don’t need pitchforks and torches, we need sound arguments and pragmatic solutions. The will and desire is already running through the people of New York, both the politicians and the citizenry. What are we all waiting for? Let’s decide that it’s not acceptable to take our money and give it to your niece. Let’s decide that it’s not acceptable to allocate funding to districts whose representatives have done you political favors. Let’s decide that we deserve a voice in the process, somewhere.
Take it upon yourself to begin a conversation with someone, anyone. Change the public discourse, change the participants in the conversation. We are rarely presented with the decision of right versus wrong. More often than not we are faced with the decision to act or to do nothing. Chose right, chose wrong, but chose something. Never ignore your ability to act. This is the true nature of democracy. This is what we must strive towards. And we should not settle for anything less, anything apathetic, anything devoid of participation. The status quo is not meant to be accepted, it is meant to be challenged. Some people set the bar low and think “I can clear that easily”; others see the low bar and think “how can I raise it?” What you chose is not the most crucial piece, rather the debate is where progress lies. Involve people around you, the people you represent in the decision and you are a true shepherd of democracy.
If it’s so easy to identify the problem, why is it still so easy to steal our allowance right from our pockets?