Sunday, April 25, 2004

We Consensed!
No. "Consensed" is not a word. And yet we did it. At 16:30 hours today, Southside Park Cohousing Association congratulated itself on a record-breaking achievement of concensus to spend $1800. We are the only government I'm dealing with that is operating in the black, so we can spend, spend, spend! Victory is mine.

Into the wilderness
Curiously, having just reeled you into my clutches only a week ago. I am to let you go. Tomorrow, I journey to a remote portion of the world, where no cell phone or computer line can reach. I will be unavailable, unassailable, unattainable.

I'm speaking of course of Marin County. I'll be at Marin Headlands Institute on a field trip with my son's class for the week. It's very hot in Sacto right now, so good to head out. To make it worth your while, I'll let you chew on these thoughts that I'm mulling over. I'm interested in your reactions, thoughts.

Ask for More, not Less
The central problem in American politics and maybe in American life is not thinking big enough and not asking enough of each other. In an era of rapidly declining civic and community participation, combined with an extraordinary degree of corporate control over our political system, the solution of the past 20 years has been to shrink expectations.

We can't have real comprehensive universal health insurance, so we’ll ask that children of working poor be partially covered. We don’t have stay-at-home mothers to staff our PTA so we ask parents to write checks instead of participate in the classroom. We don’t have enough people in the neighborhood for a full-fledged neighborhood watch, so we have an email list instead.

This trend of diminishing expectations feeds on itself. As we ask for less, we receive and perceive less and we ratchet it down another notch. The identified phenomenon of “Bowling Alone” becomes inevitable. Permanent. We come to expect only what we can out of ourselves and our internet connection.

Yet, what has been the central lesson and trend of successful education of our children: expect more get more. The Jaime Escalantes of this world get our children to stand and deliver when they tell them, not only can you do algebra, but you can do calculus. Try this. Work on that. Do it again. Suddenly those children are not only doing calculus, but loving calculus, loving school, loving life. They are more confident, more energetic, and most of all more hopeful for the future. They are engaged.

But who is applying this known universal principle of education and life to adults, to citizens, to the members of their own community? Answer: where it is applied, it is successful, but it is applied less and less.

Nowhere is this clearer to me than in the political context. Despite the overwhelming advantage of money in politics, the promise of genuine grassroots activism swamping big money Astroturf still exists and still happens. In California, where term limits creates a large number of open seats in the legislature to fill every two years, we recently saw Lori Saldena beat two infinitely better-funded insider opponents in a heavily contested Democratic primary to fill a state assembly seat from San Diego, running only on the strength of her grassroots support.

Why does this continue to happen in a world where the conventional wisdom has it otherwise? The reason is that when real voters are given hope and believe that an election or an issue really matters, they find the time to make the calls, walk the precincts, get out the vote. They are energized, excited and motivated by the feeling of making a difference.

But you can’t excite, motivate and energize people to work for things that don’t matter. Ten years ago when Proposition 186 was on the California ballot, people took leaves of absence, cuts in pay, moved to the state, changed their lives to gather signatures, raise money and work hard for even the remote possibility of enacting a single payer health care system in the nation’s richest most populous state. The initiative tanked. Still, the bumper stickers, friendships, and memories of a good fight remain over ten years later.

Contrast that to a failed fight to stop the recently passed Medicare Prescription Drug bill in Congress. The die was cast when Washington insiders set their sites on such a low goal to begin with, passing an extension of Medicare prescription drug coverage that the drug companies could live with. The decision was made: we can’t unlock the deathgrip the pharmaceutical industry has on Congress, so we’ll come to the table and negotiate (from a position of weakness in a Republican Congress) and we’ll see what comes out.

What came out was a multibillion dollar boondoggle for the drug companies—new taxpayer money for new drugs and give up the right to bargain for the best prices. Oops! This won’t do, says Ted Kennedy now, after eagerly agreeing to the talks, everyone stop everything and fight this. Too late. It passes in the face of a confused public.

How can you muster a grassroots fight to stop something that might or might not be good for you or bad for you? We asked for too little and were trounced.

A savvy reader might point out at this juncture, but Sara, you’re trounced either way: You push for single payer health care and you’re rolled. You push for a modest extension of coverage of prescription drugs and you’re rolled. What’s the difference? The difference is that in the first instance you’re back where you started but with a full-fledged joyful fight under your belt and in the second instance you’ve actually lost ground with a massive diversion and possibly undermining of the most successful health program we have: Medicare.

Those of us who care about universal health care, affordable housing, creating jobs that pay a real living wage, top-notch schools, clean air and clean water, need to start playing to win. We need to look at what needs to be done, see what needs to be changed to get there and make a plan to do it. This is true whether it’s a 10, 20, 30 or 50 year plan. Those years are going to come whether we plan them or not.

When we sit down and we look at how do we get from here to there, we can easily get overwhelmed, but we mustn’t be. We need to take it seriously and break it down into manageable chunks. Not of low expectations, but of real winable fights that matter.

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