By Kerra L. Bolton
The coffee tasted like burnt rope.
It was one of the few, legal options available to keep me awake during the slog of the state budget meeting. We sat for hours in the fluorescent-lit, cavernous committee room for hours, while government bureaucrats in drab suits explained how those in power wanted to spend the public’s money.
I was a reporter then and had already skimmed the 500-page budget document, looking for local angles to write about for the next day’s paper. There wasn’t much. Despite vociferous claims by its authors to the contrary, the state budget proposal contained nothing new. It was the usual stew of modest pay raises for teachers and state employees, a slight reduction in the corporate tax rate, cuts for programs deemed outdated, and new line-items to pay for the governor’s pet projects.
True Representation: The Missing Ingredient
The missing ingredient was the voice of the people.
Arguably, the state budget is the most important piece of legislation lawmakers pass, but most people don’t know what’s in it unless a controversial line item grabs headlines. We pay taxes with the vague notion that our money will pay for things that keep our community running, like salaries for teachers and police, fixing the highways, or making sure public buildings are safe. But we have no real say in how our tax dollars are spent.
Government transparency often happens after the fact.
A state budget proposal, for example, is posted after legislative leaders have sliced and allocated funding and programs. Citizen input through town hall meetings and “Tweet-ups” occur after substantive decisions have been made. Even efforts to solicit public feedback through online budget simulation exercises exclude the “real” factors that go into crafting a budget. These factors include things such as the political ideology of those in power, upcoming elections, the wishes of campaign contributors, and changing voter demographics.
What Is True Representation?
I was skeptical when Ted Wachtel first mentioned the idea of “True Representation,” a series of experiments that seek to redefine how governance is done through the creation of local, state, regional and national “citizens assemblies,” whose members are randomly selected. However, the more I explore the idea, the more I see its wisdom.
In his new book True Representation, available here on the Building a New Reality website, Ted describes what conditions are necessary to good group decision-making. These are conditions such as access to timely, accurate information, diversity of opinion, independence of judgment, and decentralized decision-making. He also outlines the three-phase process underway in the United Kingdom, as a “real life” example, in which a statistically representative group of citizens could influence legislation approved by the elected House of Commons.
What If We Actually Have True Representation?
What would be the outcome if large groups of ordinary, thoughtful citizens made decisions about how taxpayer dollars are spent, instead of politicians?
Would teachers be paid a fair and living wage? How would we pay for health care for the poor, elderly, chronically ill, and children? Would we invest in preventative care, or would we continue the current path of crisis care that happens daily in emergency departments across the country?
Would we maintain regulations to ensure clean air and water, or would we see them as barriers to business development? Would we use public money to recruit businesses to the state in the form of tax incentives, create incentives for existing businesses, or allow free enterprise to run without government interference? What would we as a society value, and how would we demonstrate it by the way we allocate public money?
Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport
These are the important questions of our time, even if they aren’t discussed and debated on social media and cable news programs. We can no longer punt the answers to these questions to people, however well-meaning, with twin goals of public service and maintaining power through re-election. We cannot treat democracy as if it were a spectator sport, endorsing ridiculous policies offered by the political party we like, and rejecting sensible ones from the party we abhor.
The future of democracy – whether we live in Baltimore or Brussels – depends on citizen assemblies coming together, putting their differences aside, and working toward common sense solutions that benefit everyone. Without True Representation, we’ll continue to live in societies in which fear is allowed to place barbed-wire fences on our borders and in our hearts.
If a group of ordinary, informed, thoughtful citizens gather to decide, for example, how to spend $20 billion in state funds and resources, maybe we’ll have better coffee in the committee rooms.