The thesis of this book, in a nutshell, can be stated as follows:
Problem: Money in politics.
Solution: A trust network for voting advice.
A trust network is a way of identifying and communicating with people you trust. Those people connect with others they trust, and the result is a social network of personal connections. In the political arena, those networks tend to be highly informal. But if we use the Internet effectively, we can establish a system of trusted relationships that gives you the information you need to vote wisely — and effortlessly. Doing so will make money irrelevant to politics.
The system does not have to be confined to the Internet. But that is the easiest place to start, so it represents the low-hanging fruit of the trust-network proposal.
When you think about it, a trust network only makes sense. After all, we rely on experts to fix our plumbing and work on our cars. We get other peoples’ advice when we’re picking a movie or a restaurant. It only makes sense to get advice — from people we trust — on what candidate to elect and what proposals to vote for.
Trust is very important, in this regard. It’s especially important these days, not in terms of who you vote for, but in terms of what you vote for. Politicians and lobbyists have begun to institute the Orwellian strategy of giving things the opposite name, in hopes that we’ll buy into them. And it’s working! That strategy has given us a “Clean Air” campaign that allowed greater industrial emissions, a “Healthy Forest” initiative that allowed clear cutting.
Whether or not you think those proposals are a good idea, the question is: How would you know? How could you possibly vote against a “Clean Air” campaign, unless you understood it in detail? And who has time to study every issue in sufficient detail to know whether or not it is a good idea? That’s where the trust network comes in. If a person or organization you trust tells you it’s not a good idea, you can safely vote against it, even if it sounds good on the surface.
Using the Internet, we can make it easy for people to get all of the advice they need, on every politician and proposal they’re eligible to vote for, from every person and organization they trust. We put all of that information in one place, so you rapidly prepare of checklist a votes. You can go to the polling booth knowing that you will be casting an intelligent vote on every single issue — you won’t have that ignorant, powerless feeling you get when you have no idea who or what to vote for.
Perhaps more importantly, such a system is policy neutral. It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum. It doesn’t matter what kind of advice you like to give or receive. On the one hand, the system lets you gather the advice you need from everyone you trust. On the other hand, it lets you or your organization reach everyone who trusts you — easily, without spending a lot of money. In other words, the system takes money out of the equation so that elections depend on ideas, rather than financing — one the quality of the candidates’ thinking, rather than size of their wallets.
A system like that wouldn’t be used by everyone, of course. But it can have a powerful effect, even with a very small penetration. The system would be most appealing to independent voters — the 10% of voters who make up their mind late in the process, who decide most elections. Those are voters who want information and good advice.
So with a penetration as small as 10%, the effect of political advertising and sound-byte politics could be reduced to essentially zero. At that point, money evaporates as a force in politics. The vacuum is filled with ideas, so it is the best idea that triumphs rather than the most heavily funded campaign.
Other benefits accrue from such a system, as well, including the ability to enable multi-party politics in cyberspace. The short explanation is that organizations would have the ability to put together effective coalitions, and predict their effects. That capability is described more fully in the book, and summarized in the overview paper, Taking the Money Out of Politics.
The book had it’s genesis in 1998, when I published a seminal paper on the impact of partially hydrogenated oils in the American food supply. The information was definitely not new, and I later found out that the Center for Science in the Public Interest had been campaigning for its elimination since 1994. But my paper, What’s Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?, was Google-ranked #1 for the next several years — so I’m fairly sure that it helped to generate public awareness regarding the dangers of partially hydrogenated oils (and the trans fats they contain) in the American diet. (And in a speech, I heard the head of Harvard Health’s Nutrition Division, Walter Willett, use a phrase I coined in that article: metabolic poison. That made me proud.)
But even as I was working to help ban partially hydrogenated oils, I was becoming aware of other disease-producing ingredients in the American food supply — ingredients like High Fructose Corn Syrup, Bovine Growth Hormone, and MSG that present long term health risks for those who ingest them. Those risks include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
In short, those ingredients produce virtually all of the diseases that kill the majority of Americans (upwards of 70 percent)–diseases that modern medicine remains virtually powerless to resolve, because they’re still looking for an invading microbe to kill.
That was a terrific strategy at the beginning of the 20th century. It worked fine against diseases like malaria and diphtheria, because those diseases are caused by an invading microbe. But modern medicine looks in vain for a drug or surgical procedure that will cure these modern plagues — because these are not diseases of microbial origin. Rather they represent a breakdown of the human body’s capacity to deal with the harmful byproducts of ingested substances.
The body has a magnificent system for immune defense and toxin elimination. But when you pile on the insults, day after day, in virtually everything you eat, the system is eventually and inevitably overwhelmed.
The ingredients that cause those diseases are illegal in countries that have socialized medicine. They’re illegal because, when you get sick, everyone pays. So there is a lot of pressure on government to keep you get from getting sick in the first place. In that setting, taking harmful ingredients out of the food supply seems like a darn good idea. If corporate profits are reduced because they have to use more expensive ingredients like butter, so what? They’ll just have to get by on a few billion less than the billions they’re already raking in.
In short, you want socialized medicine — not because it gives you the best health care in the world, because it helps to ensure that you won’t need the best health care in the world. In fact, with luck, you might not need any health care at all! In a healthy environment, you can be expected to live a long, healthy life. Your last years won’t be spent lingering in a hospital, watching your life force drain away along with the financial reserves you had hoped to use to give your children a good start in life.
In America, there is no such strong pressure on government. The majority of the pressure comes from corporate lobbyists, who spend fortunes to acquire power and influence — lobbyists who actually write most of the legislation that Congress votes on. Their agenda is simple: Maximize profits. So the result has been that the American food industry, among others) has been making a great deal of money at the expense of the American people.
As I always, I began trying to solve the real problem — the underlying problem. Because I could now see that the harmful ingredients in the American food supply was more of a symptom. The real problem was that, even with all of the science that identified them as poisons — science that had been know for 30 years — still we are unable to get those ingredients removed from the food supply.
There is a strong analogy with a football game. In a football game, players from opposing teams (corporations) try to score goals. The referees (government) makes them play by the rules so, for example, they don’t run over the people in the stands (us) in their attempts to achieve their goals.
In general, government’s role is to outlaw those forms of profit-making behavior which are harmful to the citizenry. So outright stealing is illegal, as is fraud. The idea is to encourage people to make money for themselves in ways that are beneficial to everyone else. It’s a system Adam Smith would be proud of — a system in which everyone focuses on getting what they can for themselves and, in the process, we’re all better off.
But at some point, the referees lost control of the game. Once team managers began calling the shots, the rules changed. The referees are no longer controlling the game, and that’s a problem for us all. After making that observation, I began to wonder: What would corporations do next?
The problem with treating symptoms is that as soon as you treat one, another appears. That’s why it’s important to identify the real cause, and solve that problem. It had taken something like 35 years just to get trans fats listed on food labels. We still hadn’t managed to outlaw the partially hydrogenated oils that harbor them, but it was something. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of people have suffered, died, and gone broke during that time. It was the tobacco company story all over again. They stall, people die. It’s that simple.
And supposed we did manage to make partially hydrogenated oils illegal? What then? What’s to keep a corporation from coming up with some new ingredient? If it takes us another 35 years to get that one eliminated, how are we better off?
The fact is, corporations come up with thousands of money-making ideas every year. A significant percentage of those ideas are harmful to your health. There is no problem, as long as the referees are effective. But when government is not effective, corporations have free reign to do whatever they like — despite any science to the contrary.
At issue, then, is the ability of government to act as an effective restraint on corporate behavior. But how can it, when political success depends on money, and corporations are the biggest and best source of that money? This is something that Ralph Nader saw in the 70’s. Only now was I beginning to understand how insightful he had been.
Once I realized that money in politics was the major problem to solve, the question became: How can we take the money out of politics. I spent 5 years asking myself that question. That’s the only sure route to creativity that I know — keep asking the question. Doing that keeps you alert to things that can be used to solve the problem. Eventually, enough of those things come together and jell into a constellation of components that will be effective. The sudden awareness produces a “Eureka” moment that is too good to be believed. It’s the best feeling on the planet.
I now understood the problem, and I saw a potential solution. After 5 years, it was the only solution I had been able to divine. So it was important. It was time to write a book. (Since then I have come to believe that Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and proportional representation systems are also an important part of the solution, but that understanding would come later.)
The book had two goals, as I saw it: (1) To explain the problem as I had come to see it (money in politics), and (2) To explain the solution I proposed (trust network for voting advice).
As I wrote and began to put things together, I began to see how general systems theory ,could be used to explain what was going on. General systems theory is something I had studied extensively in college. Its goal is to understand and describe complex systems in ways that make them comprehensible. And it turned out to be invaluable in this context.
The book became an examination of many interlocking systems:
- the human body
- the food manufacturing system
- the agribusiness system
- medical and educational systems
- systems of corporate governance
- financial systems
- taxation systems
- political systems
The sheer complexity of the effort is staggering, because it takes many books describe any one these areas in detailed fashion. But my hope was to hit the highlights, in order to to show some the more important interactions among these subsystems:
- the health of the body system depends on the food system
- the quality of the foods depends on agribusiness
- the ingredients selected for inclusion depends on finances
- financial systems force corporations to create short-term profits, regardless of long term effects
- our own retirement systems create much of that pressure
- medical systems and medical education are effectively blind to the real problems, because they’re focused on profit, rather than prevention
- lack of effective corporate governance gives them free reign
- rather than controlling corporations, government is increasingly controlled by them
- as a result of the tax policies they’ve instituted, corporations pay essentially nothing in taxes, starving government of the means to be effective, even when it has the will.
In retrospect, it’s clear that I spent too much time trying to create a detailed picture of the problem. The writing process began to take a very long time. But the psychological impact was even stronger. As I began to see how all of these systems interlocked and reinforced each other, I began to despair that would we ever solve the problem. In fact, I began to despair that I would ever manage to make the problems comprehensible — for myself, as much as anyone else
After 5 months, I was too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, much less work on anything. The fact that I was going broke added a great deal of stress, too. (You’d think I would be used to it. It was the third time. The first time was as the result of a failed startup attempt. The second time was the result of writing a computer science book that took a year and a half, when I had only planned to spend a few months on it. I’m a man of grand visions and big plans, it seems, but damn little sense. And so the cookie crumbles as gravity dictates that it will.
Eventually, I got back to work. To be able to do that, I had to completely stop working on the book for several months. Then I started writing a book on trail running. That was nice, because trail running is about putting one foot in front of the other. As long as I stay focused on feet and the trail immediately ahead of me, I can remain positive, upbeat, and optimistic.
It’s harder to be optimistic when I pick my head up and look at the cliff we’re all heading towards. The nature of that cliff, the way our herd is rushing towards it, and what we can do about it, is the subject of the book.
While writing the book, it became apparent to me that in a world of population growth, pollution, species extinction, and habitat loss, scarcity will be the name of the game. In a world of scarcity, only the strong survive — and much of corporate aggrandizement is about creating the power and wealth to own and control the resources whose scarcities will begin to become apparent in the coming decades — water and food, for example, even more than oil.
What I see coming towards us, then, is in effect a system of corporate feudalism, where scarce resources are owned by those at the top, and most everyone else works long hours within that system, merely to survive.
I believe we have an alternate future, as well. I believe we can create a virtual Garden of Eden on this earth: a land in which food and shelter is lacking for none; a land in which the days flow by in peace, harmony, and play, as hinted at in my Book Project: Return to Eden.
To do that, we need to be be satisfied with less, and we need to share more. To do that, we need to teach corporations to be satisfied with less, and to share more. To achieve that goal, we must take the money out of politics. We must do it not only for ourselves, but for our children, and for the world’s children. The reality is that American financial and political systems have global impact. We must control them here, or the entire world will suffer.