The Washington Socialist <> April 2017
By Woody Woodruff
Access to information is a constant question in any society – access that people are aware of having or not having; access that people aren’t even aware they are denied; access that people have but are not interested in (even though they should be); access that people are interested in that is damaging to their agency or their humanity.
The key, I am assuming without argument here, is agency and its relationship to information. People act on the basis of information at all times, mostly information about the routines of life (“Whenever I walk through a door that looks as though it’s open, it is.”). Some of the information is what we call “news,” generally characterized as the unusual, the non-ordinary, facts and events that require us to make a momentary or permanent change in our paradigm for optimal behavior (“The radio says my usual route to work is blocked by an accident.”).
Agency – getting the future we want in the next minute or next year – is why we seek information.
When we hear about the Trump administration removing information from agency websites, or accounts of the effect of “fake news” on voter perceptions and behavior, we worry. But we are surrounded by an information sphere at all times that is degraded from the optimal, and the reasons are easy for socialists to discern: money and its control by capitalism.
Degradation of information access makes the labor market more unfair than it would be in an information-neutral state, with access to jobs skewed by selective placement of information, promoting favoritism and introducing extraneous factors like race and gender in the information sphere. Working families suffer, too, as consumers, from degraded information sources like un- or under-regulated advertising.
Problems with the Trump regime’s biased redeployment of web-based info resources are just icing on the cake of government’s general reluctance to give constituents a peek at the way money is spent and especially on whom, as well as the more general reluctance – a GOP feature going back to the Reagan administration – to collect information about US and other societies because the less people know about the sorry state of their lives under capitalism, the better it is for the ruling class. Other opportunities have presented themselves and been cheerfully seized by those in power. The Bush 43 administration, barreling toward Baghdad no matter what the obstacles, invoked the heightened national security apprehensions and consequent regulations (the “PATRIOT Act”) after the 9-11 attacks to trim information.
“After September 11, 2001, massive amounts of information began to disappear from government agency Web sites. In some instances, the terrorist attack was used as the explicit basis for the removal. In others, the information has just disappeared.” And this came on top of ongoing, more everyday efforts: The Bushies were already “facilitating agencies’ bureaucratic reluctance to provide information” with agency policies that took potential terrorist targets off websites (making it impossible to check their safety inspection records, as with dams) or allowed any business to put a site off limits from Freedom of Information Act requests by just registering it with the Department of Homeland Security as a potential terrorist target (no questions asked about its actual value as a target).
So we can see – no surprise – that the feds and business were happily complicit in putting information off limits whenever that benefited the businesses or helped the government maintain public apprehension at a useful and exploitable level. We are still waiting for the Trump regime to come up with actually new strategies for the same old purposes. What is new since the last Republican administration is the availability of social media and other news outlets to dissenters including federal employees. Embarrassed by defiant tweets from the Park Service and continued employee rumbles from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Trumpsters are trying to restrict those employees from social media and controlling the release of news, adding another layer of fear atop the specter of RIFs to federal employees, one of the regime’s early and favorite targets.
Local governments are no less likely to exhibit this kind of behavior than the feds. Some of the largest cities and bluest states have abysmal records when it comes to public web access, especially to the nuts and bolts of public spending. A 2013 USPIRG study of transparency on top-30 city websites and records repositories nevertheless found not only New York, Chicago and San Francisco with top grades but some of our local media punching bags, D.C. and Baltimore, among the next five and rising in transparency of their spending to web visitors. Poorer cities like Detroit and Cleveland – but some not so poor, like Sacramento and Atlanta – fell into the bottom, “F” category and cities we think of as squeaky-clean and blue like Minneapolis and Boston got D- while the lowest D-, just barely escaping the “F” rung, was our favorite green city of the future, Portland, Oregon.
Cities and states don’t track equally when it comes to information transparency. Where Portland, Oregon ranked very low, the state – outside Portland and Eugene, a lot closer to a Red state – has very high transparency, according to a 2016 USPIRG study of states. Deep-blue California, on the other hand, reflects the contrasts of its three big cities – San Francisco, A plus, Los Angeles, C minus and Riverside, D minus – and is at the absolute bottom of the 50 states in government transparency.
The wild variety of actual public information transparency in respect to the taxpayer’s dollar reminds us that governments may come and go, but businesses based on capitalism remain and have deep-seated relations with local governments that continue election over election. In this they reflect the way that government gets captured by a ruling class that is hard to oust from the parts that matter. When a lack of public information is to the advantage of public officials – or of their paymasters in the capitalist “private” sector – less money gets spent on IT. It is typical to watch public information provision line items get looted at budget time when more immediate needs must get a transfer. That way taxes don’t have to be raised and often can even be lowered, a crowd-pleaser that makes the constituents easily forget cuts in the library or IT budgets.
Maryland’s counties and cities were recently examined by reporters from their own communities in honor of “Sunshine Week” (March 12-18) and the obscured view that Marylanders often have of the workings of their government remains, as a survey of local-government websites shows very nicely.
Maryland as a state in fact does quite well compared with many other states, getting a B+ for transparency on government expenditures from the USPIRG research group. The Maryland-Delaware DC Press Association, a group of news organizations covering two states and one colonial possession, recently surveyed the (mostly working) websites of 156 towns and counties in Maryland (not all the state’s 181 jurisdictions have one). The question was how well the sites allowed citizens to dig out important information about their own governments.
How many cities and counties checked all boxes of fourteen kinds of information the newsies were looking for? Two – Garrett County, in Western Maryland, and the City of Laurel in Prince George’s County. In general, as the survey noted, “geography matters” – concentrations of constituents as in the state’s larger towns mean better information access.
The rest of Maryland’s jurisdictions were spotty or worse in providing location, hours and elected officials with contact information; worse still at meeting dates and agendas (which a 2016 state law now requires available in advance), and worst of all in how the public money is spent, budgets, procurement and bidding information, names of vendors and so forth. Smaller communities with lower tax bases also have cozier, face to face relations between businesses and their government counterparts, so…
Though the reporters didn’t dwell on it, the survey showed that bidding information, vendors and budgets are sometimes hardest to track down and interpret -- and that, we socialists discern right away, is no accident. Most of the scandals that erupt from time to time, often covered by these same papers, involve collusion and corruption in the spending of public money with favored recipients, and longtime gadflies of local politics know that it is literally business as usual that these areas are hardest to find on web sites or in public records.
The Frederick News-Post account said. “Larger governments might have an information technology department to do the work. Smaller ones might rely on one person to maintain a site from home in his or her spare time. On average, a Maryland local government with a working website provided information in 8.6 of the 14 categories measured in the study,” the News-Post article added, noting that the greater the population the more likely the website was to have a higher rating in the survey. Every jurisdiction of 5,000 or more residents had a website, but “of the 25 places without websites, 20 had fewer than 1,000 residents.”
Information about how the local government spends money – and to whose benefit – is critical to a democratic and accountable government. Much of people’s despair and anger about government comes from low information in a constrained environment. This kind of information is quintessentially collective information, available (ideally) all the time in the same place and consensually accessed. Making it available endangers capitalist control not only because of the content of the information but because its possession by many people, collectively aware, creates a public that can come to think of itself as a class – working class, consumer class or oppressed class.
So if you are instead most concerned about issues of personal privacy in your use of the Internet, you may be falling for what is really a sideshow that, intentionally or not, is leading us back to individualist concerns and away from a sense of the informational collective. After all, do you really think your privacy is protectable at this point? The Federal Communications Commission in Trumpland is allowing big telcom companies to sell more of your personal data they have harvested, but what you should really be noticing is that the big info-predator companies, like Comcast and Verizon, are being enabled to monetize – big-time – data that they didn’t used to be able to monetize. Just like the capitalists and their cozy relationships with public officials, what you don’t know will hurt you, but what you don’t pay attention to will hurt you more.
Elements of this article first appeared on the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace.
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