Dan Carol

We Need Some Progressive Math on Government Spending

In 2009, the next President -- whoever he or she is -- will face red ink as far as the green eyeshades can see.

This deficit dynamic will strain our ability to invest intelligently in high-payoff, long-term programs such as strengthening US competitiveness. The federal coffers will be strained by the Iraq war, Social Security, Medicare and other fiscal surprises, and editorialists and elites will likely demand "pay as you go" proposals to justify any new idea or program, no matter how good it may be.

What emerges is not a pretty picture. Billions of dollars in "locked-in" federal spending programs, whose chief virtue is the presence of powerful political constituencies to defend them, are already in place. These programmatic incumbents often crowd out new investments and get far less scrutiny. Think prison spending and the drug war, weapons systems that don't work and Alaskan bridges to nowhere.

So how can we overcome Congressional and Beltway inertia so that smart, no-brainer, big-payoff ideas for new spending aren't immediately crowded out or diminished in scope by locked-in programs and at the same time address the deficit intelligently and responsibly?

Here's an idea -- let's require economic and social impact assessments on all government spending and assess the total return/payback on all programs and tax expenditures.

Just like the old environmental impact assessments changed state, local and federal decision-making by requiring new analysis and evaluation, a new EIA would force the debate to be about the net costs and benefits of all government investments. Here's what we'd see:

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Rebuilding Labor

Dear Andy Stern:

No, I am not weighing in with any thoughts on the internal "future of the labor movement" debate roiling on in Vegas next week. You think I am crazy? That's not my gig.

But I did want to flag some emerging, massive opportunities that SEIU, and all unions, can capture in areas that aren't traditionally the province of labor.

I'm talking about building the union halls, community centers and even the malls of the 21st century.

Because right now, as you well know, Wal-Mart is winning.

Now don't misinterpret my message: It's awesome that you are (a) seeding smart bi-national organizing strategies, (b) embracing online technology, (c) leading the charge against Wal-Mart, (d) targeting younger workers and immigrant populations on the rise and (e) aggressively pushing the labor movement to do more organizing.

Honestly, I hate to add to your to-do list, but now is the critical time to have a serious re-examination of what exactly "organizing" is. Because it's time to get busy with non-traditional organizing models designed to develop deep citizen/worker engagement strategies and build sustainable new models to refuel worker advocacy for the next 50 years.

In the growing freelance economy of some 10 million independent workers and 25 million part-timers, workplaces are no longer where as many people gather. They gather at the movie theater, on the soccer field, or in their church, or online. Worse, they don't gather at all. They cluster in their own apartments. They retreat to the safety of the walls they know. They home school.

They also turn off – after all, the average American is bombarded by about 4,000 marketing messages a day. So who wants to be sold on joining anything, let alone a "union"?

Given these trends (don't kill the messenger!), we should expect that unions will keep declining in size and influence unless they are using the most sophisticated techniques to market and deliver on a vision of community broader than simply workplace organizing and better benefits.

A big challenge, although not a new one to you or other folks who remember Charles McDonald's excellent 1985 tract, "The Changing Situations of Workers in their Workplaces," which suggested new approaches to increase labor's effective reach by 2000.

Except now we're actually in the 21st century – so how to reach "non-traditional" audiences and start a conversation about career, or college, or child care, let alone the need for workers to organize?

I'm talking about a Purple Bank to match Wells Fargo.

I'm talking about the appeal of Apple's iPod stores.

I'm talking about creating places for mixing together – and mixing music. A new union hall that combines child care and after school programs and job training site and urban theater district – all in one.

I'm thinking about a reverse AARP model – where instead of reaching out to 50-year-olds with Modern Maturity magazine and health insurance pitches on their birthday, we offer a hand out to new parents, from L.A. to Louisiana, with support services. And then grow a trusted relationship with thankful parents from there.

I'm arguing for patience – because sweaty palms, "pa-leeese, join the union" marketing will scare most folks off. We can't rush these conversations until they're ripe.

I'm envisioning a new union/SEIU media and membership network – constructed in partnership with community technology centers in 140 cities, in tandem with mayors like John Street who want community-owned wireless internet access rather than cable companies to be the last mile to citizens, with new voices from the streets and the barrios who'll learn the ropes in your studios. Say the word, and we'll sell the music and the gear on a jacked-up Purple Ocean internet radio system operating at a fraction of the cost of the old UAW radio network.

In other words, let's not just reorganize the AFL, let's re-brand it, dammit.

Think about home shopping networks and imagine a Progressive QVC. Think about our own purple-clad "Avon" ladies and gentlemen going door-to-door for more than just voter turnout and a traditional canvass.

To make it happen fast, I'd suggest partnerships with Rodale, Costco or other progressive companies. Did you know Rodale alone has a lifestyle database of over 20 million subscribers?

Because we can't really fight Wal-Mart without offering serious shopping and lifestyle alternatives – and that means corporate partners and new capital strategies.

How do we partner with private, non-union companies? Any company that wants to sell to your members will need to sign on to a new Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a hybrid union bug, evincing their support for living wage and Starbucks-level health care or whatever fundamental fairness and open dialogue can bring.

Yes-yes-yes: this stuff is a little fuzzy. Yes, you will need to experiment and fail. But can anyone argue that a $2,000-per-member acquisition cost for a $300-per-year union member that pays off in seven years is a business model that can work well all by itself?

This new union hall/community center/media hub model isn't hard to imagine. Local 1199 in New York looks that way now. But now we need to do it in 150 more cities, creating not only community media centers but urban-labor-environmental and business alliances around community economics, clean energy jobs and new capital strategies driven by Steel, Solidarity and the SEIU.

So no matter how things turn out in Vegas, let's not just fight about how much "organizing" bucks are spent and who controls them, but what they are spent on.

And let's remember what sometimes 16th Street has forgotten over the years in saying no to exploring new terrain: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Hammering Out Justice

What did people use to do when half of America didn't vote -- and too many of those folks were young voters?

Not very much. Sure, someone would pass out some recycling literature at a concert. There might be a lonely voter registration table or two. Or sometimes, there would be an impassioned plea from the stage -- but frankly, it was pretty hard to hear other than "<Insert Politician's Name> Sucks!" But not any more.

Now I am not here to tell you that a young generation of idealistic activists is rising up to lead America to the promised land. Not quite yet. But there are some folks who have had it with alienation and non-voting and aim to turn things around. They are not waiting for permission or for a rulebook with instructions from above. They are building their own infrastructure as they go,

These young people are motivated to hit the streets and hit the road...more like the barnraising style of Habitat for Humanity rather than the sitting back and waiting for the funding. Breaking ground requires no mission statement or long-term commitment -- people just work together on one project and see how they like it. If it works, they rinse and repeat. If it doesn't, they move on down the road. Fuzzy projects are frowned upon, practical efforts honored. Does this register a voter? Does it build my skills? Does it build real community? Otherwise, forget about it.

In a nutshell, call this approach "pick up a hammer" politics.

So where's the inspiration for this? It comes mainly from the perspiration and the shoulders you rub up against in the work. It comes from the understanding that political power comes from organizing and mobilizing, connecting face-to-face. It comes from honoring the foot soldiers, not the general. It's rooted in the Public Enemy/Chuck D classic: "Don't Believe the Hype."

Hip hop writer Jeff Chang wisely points out how today's generation needs to first be convinced that political action of any kind, especially voting, is even remotely important. Can you prove that anything can change according to the rules that exist? Can you get young people excited in a world where 4000 advertising images are pushed in their faces every day? Selling easy answers, which is what most politicians do, is a tough sell in this environment. And young people have highly evolved crap detectors.

Why should this generation give a hoot? Born in the Reagan era, bred under Bush and then undercoated on the final assembly line with a Clinton presidency stained by blue dresses and school uniforms -- no risk of hero worship in the average 18-25 year old, that's for sure. So ... don't believe the hype. Believe what you can see. Believe what you can do, with your friends.

A new book called How To Get Stupid White Men Out of Office documents great stories of young people in action all over the country. The authors are out on the road in 90 cities making contact on the ground. The book was produced by the League of Independent Voters, a feisty, imaginative collection of sharp tongued, energetic organizers out to change the perception of young people as apathetic non-voters. Visit their online home and tie in to their training of youth organizers and voter registration efforts.

Another great book for the youth voting revolution is Storming the Polls: How to Vote Your Views and Change the Rules, produced by the online youth magazine Wiretap. (Wiretap is a sister project of AlterNet).

Thousands of young people are going to make the scene at the Hip Hop Voters Convention June 16-18 in Newark, New Jersey -- where some serious organizing is going down. To be a delegate, you need to have registered 50 voters before the event. So absolutely no posers are allowed -- ya gotta be real.

There's a lot for us all to learn here. These crews aren't spending any energy moaning about Kerry's shortfalls -- because they don't look to him for most of the answers. Sure, they mostly want Bush out of office, but they see this as the first step toward building a stronger base of young people to exercise political power no matter who is elected.

Young activists aren't the only ones taking matters into their own hands. The artists and bands have had it too -- they are organizing themselves in ways never seen before. Before the election comes around there will be hundreds of music concerts across the land. So are you ready to rock? Check out Rock the Vote, PunkVoter, and Music for America to get a taste of what is in the works. An exciting new collaborative, called Air Traffic Control is spearheading new efforts to connect progressive grassroots organizing and music fans more effectively. So get ready for a hot summer of music and registration.

Dan Carol is a Democratic political strategist and a founding partner of CTSG, a progressive consulting firm based in Eugene, Ore., and Washington, D.C.

Doing the New Math

Politically, it's my least favorite time of year. I'm not talking about all the hype over who has won the Democratic primaries before a single vote has been cast -- that game comes every four years and sorry, no predictions here. We'll find out soon enough with Iowa now over and the New Hampshire primary coming up. No, I'm talking about the annual Kabuki Theater around the State of the Union.

You know the visual. President Bush speaks to the Congress in full assembly, "Hail to the Chief" plays, Vice President Dick Cheney sits in a chair behind Bush (Dan Quayle, we miss ya buddy!) and all through the show Democrats squirm and worry if they are clapping too little -- or too much.

Ugly stuff. But that's just the parts we see.

Behind the scenes, we have a month of political jostling before and after the "SOTU" itself. The Democrats are working on their "pre-buttal" plan to try and anticipate and pre-spin what Bush says, both sides are lining up their ammunition for the budget fight that starts right after the speech, Bush is thinking about impressing us by going to Mars, and White House handlers are scouring the grassroots for the right citizen hero to sit next to Laura Bush.

Like I said, ugly stuff.

Last year, the main issue was the war. As in, whether we should have one in Iraq.

This year, I think the battle is less obvious but arguably as important. It's about the future and what investments we need to make. And we'd better get the math right. Otherwise, a 30-year Republican strategy for destroying government's role in meaningful public investment (outside of space satellites and homeland security) will continue unabated.

We need to deal with the aftermath of the Bush budget binge. After squandering a trillion dollars on tax cuts, buying off seniors with a dubious drug benefit that doesn't kick in until 2006, and putting America in red ink as far as green eyeshades can see, Bush is now saying we need to trim our belt and cut domestic programs.

Trim our belt? After stuffing their pockets with tax cuts, these shameless freaks now want our pants -- and the shirts off our backs (or better yet, they want state government to deal with it all).

Can we call Bush a big spender without turning ourselves into budget hawks? That's a tight fit. Let's remember how much credit Clinton and the Democrats got for "being responsible" and balancing the budget mess left over by Reagan and his "I Love The 1980s" gang. The answer is zero. Nada. Zilch. So whether it's Howard Dean (he of 11 balanced budgets in Vermont) or someone else, the Democratic nominee needs to be careful before we raise our hands and do it all over again.

Well here's an idea. How about we don't play the Republicans' game until we stop stacking the deck against smart policy choices? It doesn't have to be that way -- not if we demand a serious look at the costs and benefits of public investment and make the case for payback economics.

Here's an example. This week, The Apollo Alliance is releasing an outside economic study showing how major league investments in good green jobs and energy independence would, in fact, pay for themselves, create over three million new jobs and over a trillion dollars in new economic activity. What's not to like?

Can we out-trump the Republicans on economics and demand a "policy payback analysis" to all federal or state investments? How would Bush's buddies do if their corporate welfare programs had to be benchmarked against, say, proven pre-kindergarten education investments for kids? Jesse Jackson had it about right years ago in talking about the importance of investing in the front side of life. Before we spend $30,000 a year on a jail cell. Let's get the substantive cost-benefit analysis done to make that case on everything we are in favor of achieving in the next 30 years.

Republicans will say each idea costs too much. But once we count the benefits, they won't have a lot less to say while we will have much more to offer.

Whether it's the interstate highway system, the electronics industry or the Internet, there are endless examples of how public investment has catalyzed economic success.

This is no-brainer stuff. Voters can get this. So let's do the math.

Dan Carol is a Democratic political strategist and a founding partner of CTSG, a progressive consulting firm based in Eugene and Washington, D.C.

A Channel of Our Own

In sketching out a new map for taking power, via a state-by-state effort to rally the D/democratic troops, we face an important challenge. Just how can we sound the call to arms -- when we know it won't be on Fox News? Or NBC, or anywhere else?

While it may be tempting, we won't change much by moaning about Rush Limbaugh and the ever-annoying shortfalls of the "mainstream media." Nor will our dreams for a progressive media network be realized anytime soon.

Sorry, but it's tough love time, folks. We have to understand there are no miracles on the horizon. The fact is, even if we had a spare $500 million to start a liberal cable channel tomorrow, it's highly doubtful we could fill it 24/7 with compelling programming. Frankly, we'd be lucky to deliver a few hours each day of liberal talk that was provocative rather than preachy. That's the bad news.

The good news is we can create our own liberal "echo chamber" using the media platforms, opinion soapboxes and marketing channels we already control. However, the model will be driven less by "broadcast" media (e.g. Rupert Murdoch's Direct TV), and rely more on "narrowcasting" mechanisms such as face-to-face outreach and peer-to-peer contact. Imagine, for instance, an army of progressive Avon ladies (and gentlemen!) fanning out to preach to our "choir" -- and to win over potential new converts.

So what are the pieces we can cobble together to create a liberal, Avon "media platform" of our own? It's really not such a bad line up:

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