This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Taking the Money Out of Politics

Most of the major domestic problems faced by America today either fundamentally stem from, or are held in place by, the impact of money in the political process. This information comes as no surprise to many. There may be argument over the details, but there is little question that money—especially corporate money—plays too large a role in the American political system.

Originally published 2004

How the Project Began

In 1999, when it became clear that money in politics was a big problem, I began asking myself how we can get the money out of the election equation. Since the only Path to Creativity I know is to keep asking a question until an answer appears, I began asking that question. Repeatedly. With very intelligent person I knew, I worked that question into the conversation. I asked it during the day, and before going to sleep.

It took 5 years for a good answer to appear. For every potential solution I devised, I figured out a way for money to game the system, or for money-controlled politicians to block it. It eventually became clear that the only way to solve the problem was to circumvent the existing political system, yet do so in a way that influenced that system. Finally, one night, the idea of a Voting Advice System occurred to me, seemingly out of nowhere.

But that is the way creativity works. It’s mysterious. Somehow, a collection of random thoughts and system-constraints had gelled into a viable solution. At last, I knew how the problem could be solved. To explain how the system could work, and to explain why it was needed, I began writing a book.

I worked on that book over a 5-month period, early in 2004. The goal of the book was to explain exactly why we need to make money irrelevant to elections, in order to motivate the construction and use of a Voting Advice System. Once published, I figured that donations would begin pouring in, and I could get to the task of building it.

As the project progressed, it became clear that General Systems Theory held the key to the analysis, by examining the interaction between our political, financial, agricultural, medical, and environmental systems. That path was so fruitful that the single book I originally envisioned grew into a 9-volume series. Time did not permit finishing that series in the 5-months I had available to devote to the task. I had run out of money and was forced to go back to work, so I created this summary, and established a website to promote the ideas, at (now defunct).

Again, I naively assumed that the donations would begin pouring in and that, after a few months’ work, I would be able to get to the task of finishing the book and building the system. But it was not to be. Instead, I wound up returning to the workforce for the next 10 years.

Lacking traction, I eventually took down the site and moved the information here, and expanded on the idea in the Voting Advice System pages. Finally, in 2015, I became semi-retired. With time and a bit of cash at my disposal, I formed TreeLight Penworks, an independent publishing company which, if successful, would allow me to stay retired.

That project too took much more time than expected. But with a livelihood assured, I am once again able to devote time to this much-needed effort.

Learn more: How I Became a Health and Political Activist

Why It Took So Long

Had there been a social safety net in place that allowed me to work on the project, I can assure that I would have been on the job much sooner. Lacking that, I was forced to find a way to make a living.

You see, I came out of poverty, and only finished college because of the huge helping hand that came from friends of the family. I had already gone completely broke once, when I founded a start-up company with a great idea and zero marketing sense, and wound up paying my own salary for three years.

And I had gone broke again while working on the book project. Fortunately, I found another job rapidly, and wound up living on a cache of Ramen stored in an office drawer, until that first paycheck arrived. 

Being completely broke in America was stressful, both times. I’m not sure I have the strength to face a third time. (I sure don’t want to, that’s for sure.) So I wound up devoting my time and effort to a corporate job for the next 10 years. 

With so much time and effort devoted to making a living, the unfortunate fact is that I little time or energy left over for the incredibly important project of publishing the book and building the system. So it remained a background project until 2015, when I was at last able to retire.

Social Security came close to giving me enough to live on in retirement, but it did not come close enough, so I cashed in my 401k, which gave me enough money to launch the publishing business, and to live on while I do so.

As TreeLight Penworks succeeds, I will at last gain the independence I have been seeking since 1985, when I left corporate employment to found my own company with my two incredibly intelligent partners, Dave Edgerton and Tom Dinger. Alas, what we had in enthusiasm in creativity was more than balanced by a lack of marketing sense, which explains the demise of that venture.

But the sad fact is that lacking both social safety net and the energy to create the voting advice system in my spare time, I bear quite a bit of moral responsibility for the devolution of American society into a “corporate state”, most recently exemplified by the election of Donald Trump, and the turning of the White House into nepotism central, and the very epitome of political corruption.

So I apologize, America. I wish that I had been able to act sooner. But the day is coming. I promise. And in the meantime, I want to explain that despite the seeming insurmountable problems we face, there is reason for optimism.

Facing Our Problems with Courage and Optimism

The problems we face are fairly well known. But while it’s possible to confront a problem with courage and optimism when we know of a solution, it’s extraordinarily difficult to do so when we know of none. In such circumstances, we generally we try not to think about it. While it’s not a very successful strategy for dealing with a problem, it’s a psychological strategy that lets us cope.

However, the really serious sense of despair sets in when we start thinking that maybe the system is so fundamentally broken that it’s impossible to fix. That’s when we really want to stick our head into the proverbial sand. The article that follows this one could easily induce a sense of despair, because there so many problems that we face.

In an effort to prevent that emotional nosedive, let me try to create a feeling of optimism right at the outset, by way of a question:

If you could easily get the information you need to vote wisely, all from people you trust, and you could get it all in one place—and if you knew that you were making democracy stronger in the process—would you use it, and would you vote?

If you answered “Yes” to that question, then we can take the money out of politics. You only need access to a voting information system, get the recommendations and other information you need to make an informed decision, and then cast your vote. As a voter you not only gain convenience, you gain confidence as well—and in the process you empower a whole new breed of politics based on thoughtful analysis, rather than money.

The right kind of system will make it easy for you to get advice from people you trust. It will be easy to find advisors, so you have recommendations for every race and ballot measure. You won’t need to take those recommendations blindly, either. You’ll be able to examine the reasons your advisors give, and decide whether or not you want to take their recommendations. In many cases, you’ll be able to view short video segments that explain your advisor’s position, as well.

A Voting Advice System can produce a thoughtful democracy. That’s the kind of democracy we need to solve the problems we face. After all, non-profit organizations and analysts spend most of their time examining issues, evaluating proposals, and thinking through their implications. So they’re pretty knowledgeable.

Voters, on the other hand, are generally much less knowledgeable. If you’re an average voter, you spend a few minutes at a time making a decision, here and there, over the course of an election when you hear political advertising. Then you spend an hour or two the night before trying to figure out what to do about issues and candidates you’ve never heard of.

You want to make a good decision. But how do you know if you made the right one? Most of the information you get comes from the politicians—people who are trying to sell you on their qualifications and their ideas. You’d like to trust them. But taking them at their word sometimes feels like trusting a used car salesman—they’re telling you that the car is in great shape, but how do you know, unless you have your mechanic check it out?

The System WILL Go Viral

A Voting Advice System can make it easier to get expert advice, so it can definitely make the process of voting more thoughtful—for the people who actually use it. But what if only a handful of people use it? Until there are enough people using the system to determine the outcome of election, money will continue to dominate the political process. The question is: Will enough people use the system to remove money from the political equation and establish a thoughtful democracy?

If you can see yourself answering “Yes” to my earlier question, then we can use the induction hypothesis (also known as faith in human nature) to show that a voting advice system will be widely used. That result can then be used to show that the system will achieve its goals.

The argument goes like this:

  • Induction:
    • A Voting Advice System would be helpful to me. I would use it.
    • Others are like me (I’m human, after all).
    • Therefore others would use it, too.
  • Synthesis:
    • Knowledgeable organizations and experts who spend their time examining issues and their implications will give thoughtful advice.
    • A system that brings expert advisors and voters together (at the discretion of the voters) produces a thoughtful democracy—provided there is widespread participation.
  • Conclusion:
    • By the induction hypothesis, we know that participation will be widespread.
    • Therefore, a system that brings advisors and voters together, making participation convenient and effortless, will be widely used and will produce a thoughtful democracy.

In other words, when we build that system, we can take the money out of politics. Besides, even if we achieve only partial success, we will improve the political process to a major degree—and the process can certainly use improvement!

In the next article in this series, we’ll explore the subject of money and politics and see why it’s a bad mix.

Copyright © 2004-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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