Proposal for Choosing a Better President

It seems to me to be undeniable that the method we use to decide who should be President is pretty much guaranteed to produce the worst possible outcome. By some fluke we occasionally seem to find a winner, but most have been middling to terrible. Perhaps it is time to consider some alternatives. There is nothing magical about the system we use, and owes many of its features to the politics of the time it was written, and the framers knew from the start that it was a flawed document and left us the means to improve it, which we have, by and large, failed to do.

However even without actually changing the system I believe that there is a way to elect a person to the job who is the most appropriate available. The trick is to bypass the whole party structure. I am not suggesting starting yet another third party; history does not offer much hope for that route.  Instead I propose a People’s Candidate. This candidate would be chosen by that most American of all institutions, the TV game show. 

Let me be clear that this is a serious suggestion, and while game show methodology would be used, the whole project would be planned and executed by respected public figures, and would represent a genuine attempt to educate the public into making wise choices. I would first seek to recruit the support of all the living former presidents, and leverage that to attract a team of people suitable to the gravity of what is being attempted. Former prominent White House senior staff would be a good pool of prospects.

The first task would be one that has never really been done, though one would think it was fundamental to the issue, which is to come up with a proper job description. This would define all the skills needed for the job. The second task would be to devise a series of challenges that would test these skills. These would range from fairly simple games at the local tryouts level, and increasingly challenging ones as the game progressed. The third task would be to figure out how to properly educate the viewers in as fair and unbiased a way as possible.

The structure would be America’s Got Talent meets Survivor, but the aesthetic would be very much PBS. I would imagine someone like Bill Moyers as the presenter, though it must avoid being run by a gerontocracy.

When the field is down to a manageable number the challenges would more and more closely resemble the actual work of the presidency, such as carrying on mock negotiations (perhaps foreign leaders could even be persuaded to participate) while being constantly distracted by an ongoing stream of unrelated matters demanding immediate attention.

The end game would be to run the winning team in the next election, using the profits of the show to fund the campaign. My bet, though, is that little actual campaigning would be needed. By the end of this whole project the winner would be so well known and loved by the viewing public that they would win in a landslide. What would be really interesting is whether actual political candidates would participate in the game, or whether all the contestants would be members of the general public.

While this project would definitely not be humorless (I suspect that a functioning sense of humor may turn out to one of the absolute requirements of the job) it should not suffer any hint of levity. It should be conducted in as transparent a manner as possible, and consult a wide range of views on what features to include.

Proposal for fixing the campaign finance problem

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that giving money to political candidates is a form of free speech, and therefore cannot be regulated. Many of us profoundly disagree with this conclusion, but nevertheless given the recent change in the ideological balance on the Supreme Court this decision is unlikely to be overturned in the near future, so from a practical point of view we are stuck with it. However I believe that all is not lost. There is a strategy that could be implemented that would take account of this reality and yet still ameliorate the problem.

While it is argued that the giving of money is a right, it would be hard to argue that it was also a right for the recipient of the money to know who gave it. I would propose modifying the campaign finance laws in the following way. Set up an agency that would be charged with collecting and distributing all political donations in such a way that a wall is maintained between donor and recipient. All money would be passed along in random amounts different from the donation amounts and at times unconnected with when the donation was made. This way, although donors could claim to have donated money to particular candidates, they would be unable to prove it.

The main difficulty would be to devise a method of ensuring that the money really was passed along in a verifiable fashion to the proper recipients without anyone being in a position to know both donor and recipient, and without requiring an excessive degree of trust, which is in short supply in today’s political environment. This is a significant problem, and may indeed turn out to be impossible, though it would seem that blockchain technology may offer a solution. Unfortunately this technology is so little understood that it is hard to know for sure.

If it is not possible to set up a completely blind system it would be necessary to have trusted intermediaries to do the job, which would not be ideal, but should not pose an insuperable barrier. We already have people who are privy to highly secret information that could easily be used for personal gain yet we trust that they do not use it for such. IRS auditors are one group that come to mind. I am not necessarily suggesting we should use IRS auditors as a solution to our problem, but rather pointing out that the mere ability to act dishonestly does not always produce that result.

A combination of careful selection and very harsh sanctions for breaking the rules would keep any possible leaks to a minimum. It is not an argument against a proposed system that it might not be completely proof against dishonesty; we do not need to seek perfection, but rather a substantial improvement on the status quo. Most people are law abiding, and would hesitate before exposing themselves to substantial legal consequences. The likeliest result of adopting such a system would be that it would expose the hypocrisy of those claiming the free speech rights for their contributions. When they could not legally exert any influence on their donees (because the could not prove their donations) I would predict that the majority would simply stop donating.

Campaign Contributors and Influence

A candidate for County Supervisor has come under fire because much of her funding comes from interests that seem to be at odds with her professed values. In a local public forum she spent much of her opening statement complaining about how she is being treated, and expressing outrage that anyone should suggest that she could be bought. 

Her second line of defense was to point out all the positions she is taking that are against the interests of her contributors, and that she should be judged by her positions and programs and proposals not by her contributors.

Contributors and their money are solid fact, the rest is just words. It is easy to come up with high flown rhetoric, but it is a poor predictor of what you will do when you are elected and have to deal with the day to day grind of actually doing the work. Positions change, often quite legitimately, with changing circumstances. Campaigns are like first dates: everyone is trying to show their best face. Only later do you find out the real truth. 

With regard to the claim that she cannot be bought, I am willing to stipulate that she really believes this to be true, and that she is indeed an ethical person. But that is only to be expected. There is never a quid pro quo, especially at the start. We say politicians are bought, but that is not really an accurate description of what happens. It is much more subtle than that. You cannot usually point to any specific vote or action as having been done in return for a campaign contribution, but there are many invisible ways in which a contributor’s interests can be served. Much of the work of a supervisor is out of the public eye, and often involves monitoring the actions of officials such as those who enforce building codes, for instance. The fact that a supervisor expresses concern about a case will certainly change the way the official handles it, and it seems likely that if the supervisor shows a bias towards a particular outcome, the likelihood of that being the actual outcome is increased. Of course all of this is done with hints and innuendo, but bureaucrats become very skilled at divining the unspoken wishes of their bosses; it is an important survival skill. People with large financial interests have much more frequent interactions with officialdom than most people, and being known as a friend of a supervisor will certainly ease their passage. This kind of thing is often more important to the contributor than actual legislative matters, most of which they do not care about. 

The other thing that they buy with their contributions is access. They get their calls returned. They get to put their point of view, which is always dressed up so as to be politically palatable, directly to the politician. Everyone else has to stand up at meetings and try to get across a coherent message while the board secretly check their Facebook.  Politicians are only human, and when they are constantly exposed to a particular point of view cleverly expressed they tend to adopt that point of view. They find that these people who are portrayed by the protestors as evil are in fact charming and urbane, and really seem like quite reasonable people. They give money to charity and support the ballet. They are easy to like, unlike all those angry and rude people on the other side. 

The movie depictions are wrong: the devil never appears in smoke and flames with red eyes and a tail, he is dressed impeccably with polished shoes and is polite and solicitous. He has no need to play the heavy, he has people for that, and they make sure he is never bothered with the sordid details. 

There is no arm twisting, no threats, just the underlying realization on the part of the politician that they need to get reelected, and they need to keep that money flowing in, and people do not give money to politicians who thwart their interests. Of course everyone concerned realizes the political realities. If a politician could be seen openly voting in their favor he or she would be open to attacks on the subject, so that is saved for the direst situations. In general the contributor will not make demands that would damage his politician. But you can be sure of one thing: when the chips are down, and there is an important vote that will, say, stop a large development, you are better off having someone there voting who is not beholden to developers. 

The solution for all this is obvious: get the power of the money out of the system. One way would be public financing of campaigns. Another intriguing idea would be to erect a wall between donor and recipient. Anyone would be allowed to donate any amount to any candidate, but it would be illegal to do so directly, with very severe penalties. Instead they would pay the money to an Election Finance Board who would then forward it to the designated candidate, but broken into amounts that would not match the amounts of the donations, and with a random delay. The donor would get a receipt for the money, but the receipt would not specify the recipient candidate. Under such a system the donor could never prove to the candidate that he had given him money. Indeed donors could give a large amount and get a receipt and then go to each candidate and say that the money went to them, and the candidates would be none the wiser. With modern technology and a well designed system it would be quite feasible for no person, including those working for the Election Finance Board, to be able to identify both ends of a transaction. 

Candidates claim that their donors just want to get good people elected and do not expect any direct payback. If that is indeed the case the money people should have no problem with such a system, which allows them to support candidates as heavily as they want, but makes sure that they will not see any direct benefit for doing so. Some might object to introducing yet another government bureaucracy; to those I would say that there are some functions that are the proper function of government, and elections are most certainly one of them. Fair elections are the very basis of our power as citizens to affect the activities of those we elect.

Privacy and Encryption

If I were to propose a law that would authorize the Post Office to open your letters and packages, observe and record the contents, sell the resulting information to anyone who will pay them for it, and insert their own materials inside (without informing either you nor the recipient) before delivering them, you would rightly think me crazy. Why would we give such power to any organization? Yet this is exactly the situation with the companies that handle our email and other internet activities. They are free to do all of this and more, and they are making truly staggering amounts of money in the process. One of the hallmarks of civilized countries has always been their postal systems, and privacy has always been a feature of such systems. Just because we have invented a faster and more efficient means to send materials to one another does not change the fundamental nature of those messages. They are still private communications and we should have the right to expect that privacy to be respected.

The argument that the nature of the technology makes it impossible to prevent the owners of the wires and routers from being able to do these things is not correct, and even if it were would still not provide a justification for allowing it. There are countless human behaviors that we have collectively decided for various reasons cannot be permitted in a workable society, and many of them rely on harsh penalties to deter people even when it would be impossible to physically restrain them from breaking the law. One might as well say that since people in the privacy of their homes are free to abuse their spouses and we really have no way to change that, it is useless to pass laws against it.

We could relatively easily prevent much of this abuse, by the use of strong encryption. It is true that advances in computing power make it very difficult to devise unbreakable encryption, but this is not needed. What we need is strong enough encryption to make it not worth the time and trouble of trying. It could be made completely transparent to the users. 

The problem is that strong encryption methods are considered items of national security, and their use by ordinary citizens is against the law. This is justified by the perceived need for the government to be able to monitor all communications so as to be able to effectively counter terrorist groups. If strong encryption were generally available these groups could communicate freely unmolested. In truth, though, if they cared enough terrorists could in fact use very effective encryption. In spite of the law, strong encryption is out there, but there is no evidence that terrorists make any effort at all to use it. However national security makes a powerful case in peoples’ minds for keeping the status quo.

Another factor that comes into play is the commonly heard “If you have nothing to hide, why do you care about privacy?” The question that springs to my mind when I hear this is “Do you lock the bathroom door when you are on the toilet?” An activity does not have to be shameful or harmful to the community for me to want to keep it private. In addition it all hinges on what kinds of communications or behavior the authorities are interested in curtailing. Points of view that are quite acceptable, even admirable, today have a way of suddenly becoming  unacceptable with a change in the political scene. In England during the time of the Tudors, the social and legal position of Catholics and Protestants switched places several times with the death of a monarch and the accession of a new one.

It is also argued that this (and many other abuses) are simply a matter of contract law. If you read the fine print, they tell you everything they are going to do, and you agreed to it when you clicked “I have read and agree to the terms of business,” probably by now the most told lie in all of history. However it cannot truthfully be said that users enter willingly into these agreements; they have no reasonable choice. All of the useful services on the internet are for all intents and purposes monopolies. Sure, you can buy a computer that runs on Linux, and use secure browsers and virtual private networks, but then none of the social networks will work properly. This is not by chance; they deliberately make their products compatible only with the mainstream platforms. Also with such a setup you will spend a significant portion of your time just keeping it running, and have to deal with all kinds of difficult installers and drivers. 

We should require the use of strong end to end encryption for all of our dealings on the internet, and establish the clear principle that the function of Internet Service Providers is solely to see that everything is delivered to its proper destination, and looking at the content of the messages should carry harsh penalties.  If this means that Google would only make million rather than billions, the so be it. There is no inherent unfettered right to make money.

Voting Machines

Most states now use electronic voting machines of some kind. It is reported that in at least 43 states the machines in use are more than 10 years old. There have been countless allegations and reports of irregularities concerning these machines. It has been shown that the use of these machines is frequently correlated with election results that differ unusually widely from pre election polls and/or exit polls.  In the past exit polls were considered the best way to detect election fraud; now, because of frequent anomalous results, they are no longer considered reliable.  It seems plausible that this is the result of widespread cheating rather than some change in the reliability of exit polls. 

All voting machines in use in the US are proprietary machines made by private companies. In some cases the top management of these companies are know supporters of a particular political point of view (pretty much exclusively the Republican point of view). It has been said that gambling machines in Nevada are better regulated than the machines that perform perhaps the most important task in any democracy, that of counting the votes. This is an unacceptable situation. 

I propose that a public interest group be set up with the aim of developing a voting machine that cannot be tampered with and that could be guaranteed to render the correct result. The code would be open to inspection by anyone. A large bounty would be offered to anyone who found a flaw, either a bug or an opportunity to alter the result. The penalty for exploiting such an opportunity would be so severe as to make the bounty much more attractive. 

The reason I am confident that this could be done successfully is that running an election is perhaps the simplest task a computer could be asked to do. The first requirement is that this be a completely purpose built machine. It should be designed to do only the minimum required to fulfill its function, and have no parts that are not necessary to that task. In other words it would not be a repurposed Windows or even Linux box. There is no need for any great degree of complexity, and certainly no need for any way of altering the code once the machines be had been set up for a particular election. Even then the only part that would be alterable would be the details about the candidates or propositions on the particular ballot. 

The underlying code would be burned into chips and completely unalterable. It would be able to handle any known voting system (first past the post, proportional representation, instant runoff etc). I am not sufficiently technically knowledgeable to be able to design such a system, but I know enough to be completely sure that it can be done, and indeed that it is not very difficult. As is often the case in our competitive system, most of the complexity is deliberately introduced either to discourage competition or to cover up opportunities for cheating. 

Part of the specification, and perhaps the hardest part, would be the requirement that there be some way for the voter to verify that his or her vote has been correctly recorded, while keeping in mind the principle that the vote be secret. It must be impossible for one’s employer, for instance, to demand proof of how someone voted, and the existence of a printed receipt that showed this information would enable him to do so. This would not therefore be a suitable way to provide this assurance. Again, I am confident that such a scheme could be devised if enough thought is given to the problem. This requirement might even be considered unnecessary in view of the fact that the code is available, and the voter can be sure that it has been vetted by a great many very smart people and that the machines had been tested according to a known protocol, and therefore perhaps be willing to take it on trust. After all, such an assurance is not available for any current method of voting. 

The machine itself could be made literally transparent for a powerful symbolic effect. Manufacturing should be a very straightforward matter and could be subcontracted. All machines would be thoroughly verified and the firmware loaded following a procedure designed to preclude cheating. This is perhaps the most critical aspect, as once the chips have been burned and permanently installed and the machine sealed no further tampering will be possible. I am confident that a group of intelligent people can come up with a suitable protocol, and this would also be published and feedback sought. The entire process would be as transparent as is humanly possible. 

Along with the machine the group should specify a complete protocol for its operation. This would include such topics as how it is protected from tampering between elections, and all aspects of its secure use. 

Once such a machine had been developed and tested, the group would turn its attention to getting it universally adopted.  A model law would be made available so that any state could easily require the use of our machine in all elections, and ban the use of proprietary machines.  It is hard to think of any valid objection that could be raised against such a proposal if it could truly be shown to be completed proof against tampering. 

The organization in charge of this project would be a nonprofit and would seek out highly respected people for its board. Bill Moyers and Jimmy Carter spring to mind, and I am sure a little thought would come up with many others. I feel that this is something that many people would regard as a public duty to participate in. 

One persistent puzzle is that all systems must be operated and managed by people, and given today’s extreme suspicion of governments how are we to design a system that is as close to incorruptible as is humanly possible, and persuade people of this fact? The goal should be to limit any potential tampering to only single machines as much as possible. If each machine has to be attacked individually it becomes much harder to mount an effective attack on the system. In addition all systems should be self checking and multiply redundant. 

Wealth Distribution and Inheritance

From an online debate on

Speak2Truth wrote:

Wrongs are most commonly inflicted by Government, especially seizing the hard-earned product of one’s labor to be redistributed to whomever the folks in power favor. That is one of the greatest wrongs, essentially enslaving one portion of the population to enrich another. The folks at the receiving end have no legitimate claim to ownership of what was seized and handed to them

Even if we take into account people who actually work day to day in their businesses, I would venture to state that the vast majority of the top income “earners” can not in any reasonable sense be said to labor. Managing money is not laboring. It may be hard work sometimes (though people at this level pay others to do that); it is certainly not labor. In truth, neither is being CEO of a company. Therefore we can rule out this entire class as people who are being robbed of the product of their (non-existent) labor. They are in fact, as I have pointed out in another thread, the very people who are robbing others of the well-earned fruits of their labor, while simultaneously operating a system of debt slavery. (The Company Store is alive and well, only now it goes by names like Visa and MasterCard.) I agree that these folks have no legitimate claim to ownership of what they have seized. They are also the principal recipients of the largesse of governments. Welfare for low-income people is vastly eclipsed by corporate welfare. Who do you think owns the corporations that profit from the ludicrously overpriced hardware that is so profligately wasted in constant warfare? 

So let us indeed stop seizing the product of labor and giving it to those who do not labor. Let us instead tax the income of those who do not labor, but live off the labor of others. 

And while we are on the subject of legitimate claim to ownership, I would like to know where you stand on the topic of inheritance, which is one of the mechanisms by which institutionalized power is concentrated and maintained. I would like to hear an ethical defense of this system from the point of view of a conservative who believes in personal responsibility. 

There are two ends to this, and most argument on the subject centers around the right of someone who has earned a fortune to distribute it as he wishes upon his death. I would argue that no such natural right exists. There is no natural law that mandates what rights inhere in the concept of ownership, and we are free to define those rights as we choose. We might decide, as we do with many activities that we define as crimes, that the social cost of this practice outweighs the desires of those who wish to indulge in it. We might take the view that a dead person no longer has any interest in the game, and therefore should not have any decision-making power beyond the moment of death.

This is not as revolutionary an idea as might at first appear. Several of the Founding Fathers wrote and spoke against the concept of inherited wealth, and Adam Smith himself said that it was perhaps the hardest concept to justify ethically.

But even if we concede the right for someone to dispose of his estate, we have a much harder time justifying allowing the recipient to receive it. Where is the personal responsibility there? What has this person done to deserve the money? Should he not be required to earn whatever he receives, as you are so fond of saying, by his own labor?

So other than “It has always been that way” and “People want to leave their money to whomever they want”, neither of which is a persuasive argument for the continuation of something, what justification can you offer for inheritance? 

And please, let us remain above the level of “well, what are you going to do, give it all to the Government to distribute?” stuff. If we can indeed agree on the principle, it should not be hard to come up with a reasonable mechanism. After all, the Social Security system works extremely well, and performs a similar function. It could be run like a giant mutual fund, and we are well-practiced at running those. It is untrue to say that government can never do anything right. If government departments function poorly it is because they are managed poorly by those we elect to see to their proper functioning. There is nothing inherent in the concept of government that prevents it being run properly. Unfortunately our electoral system has been hijacked by means of the campaign finance laws by people who have an interest in weakening government (which is the protection the people have against powerful interests.) So by deliberately mismanaging and underfunding government departments that do not function as money conduits for them they are able to demonstrate how badly government works. 


It is easy to whip up hate. Encourage some ultra-extreme group to do something stupid and destructive. Then fill the papers with diatribes against the guilty group, and convince everyone that these barbarians are poised to attack on every side; the barbarity of the crime proves that they will stop at nothing. So the conflagration begins again, and each new outrage adds fuel to the fire.

This same scenario, with regional variations, is played out all over the world. And it is all based on the perception on all sides that people who are different from us are out to get us. It works between social groups as well as ethnic. Women are constantly being told that men are out to control them. Farmers are set against city dwellers, commercial interests against residential, the middle classes fear the poor, the list is endless. Whatever groups we can identify ourselves as belonging to, it seems that there is some other group to be suspicious of.

And yet the whole thing breaks down at the only level which is in fact intrinsically reliable, which is the personal level. The only thing we can really judge is that which we have experienced personally. And our actual personal experience is that people are people no matter where they come from and no matter what color they are. Some of them are saints, and some of them manifest only evil, and the rest are somewhere between. Almost everyone has a capacity for cruelty, and almost everyone has a capacity for selfless courage. It all depends on which buttons are pressed and by whom.

So if people are just people, and if a bomb set in the midst of your enemy’s camp will kill an equal proportion of good and bad people as one set in your own camp, how do you get people to kill each other willingly? It is not an easy or inexpensive task. You need a class of people who are unthinking enough to accept uncritically whatever attitudes you feed them. It also helps if they do not actually have to see or hear their victims. Ever since the advent of the crossbow we have been moving further and further in the direction of impersonal warfare. You need to inculcate in them an attitude of fierce group pride. They must believe that their way of life or religion is the only true one, and that everyone who is different is automatically inferior. You also need to dehumanize the enemy in their eyes. They are less than people and need to be eliminated.

So who benefits from all this? Not the regular citizens of either the winning or the losing side. Another effect of modern warfare is its effect on non-combatants. Even as late as the Napoleonic Wars (the early 1800’s) it was possible for an Englishman to travel freely in France even though the countries were at war. If you were unfortunate enough to actually live at the spot where two opposing armies decided to duke it out, you would of course be highly inconvenienced. Also if you were a peasant you would probably find yourself involuntarily donating your grain and flour to any army that was passing through, but by and large the only people who got killed were in uniform. Today, of course, this is far from being the case. As a matter of government policy civilian populations are subjected to military attack, and houses and public building of no military significance destroyed. Economically, too, the population must inevitably suffer. Certainly weapons-building can give some temporary and local prosperity as a result of war, but this never lasts beyond the end of the fighting. The net result is that money passes from the population in general to a small group of people who own the businesses who make the armaments. Even the politicians, often perceived as the warmongers, do not really gain from the situation except perhaps for a momentary rise in popularity.

What can we do? First we can educate ourselves. We can travel, see for ourselves what people of other lands are like. We can recognize that no matter what, warfare does not benefit us or anyone we know and like. We can understand that the ordinary population of every other country in the world is far too busy scrabbling about to make a living to want to fight anyone. We can see who in fact keeps it all going. Wars take huge amounts of money. No government today can afford to pay for a war of the taxes they can raise; they have to borrow money. This is done by selling government bonds, which are bought largely by people in high tax brackets, who benefit most from their tax-free status. The profits from these bonds further enrich the already rich, at the expense of the national debt. Thus an ever-greater proportion of our current taxes (which are born disproportionately by the middle classes) goes to pay interest payments to the wealthy, effecting a constant upward transfer of wealth. The whole thing is a scam. The same people who are making and selling us the weapons are also lending us the money to do so, and, to add insult to injury, the profits on the money lending are tax free. It shouldn’t be hard to think of creative ways of fixing the situation if you could ever achieve a political climate that was conducive to actually doing so. Until then, at the very least we need to be aware of what is happening.

Public Health Care

We hear a lot about the cost of health care, when what is actually being described is the price of health care, an altogether different thing. The idea that a fair price is what a willing buyer is prepared to pay to a willing seller assumes that if the seller asks an outrageous price, the buyer is free to walk away. If the seller has the only drug or procedure that will keep the buyer alive, he is not free to walk away. He has to pay whatever price is asked. There is no meaningful competition in the health care industry.

The so-called health care industry is in the business of trafficking in human life. If you do not have the money to pay them to keep you alive, they will let you die. If you are in severe intractable pain and do not have the money to buy their drugs, they will let you suffer in agony. They are permitted to charge whatever the market will bear. What will you pay to stay alive? Everything you have, if necessary.

Even the Medicare system is forbidden by law from negotiating prices with the drug companies. The one organization which is in the position of being able to deal with the drug companies on a relatively level playing field is forbidden to do so. They must accept the “market” price derived from the process of extortion described above.

I am constantly amazed that so many people seem to prefer the notion of privatized health care to a public system. The executives of a publicly traded corporation are obliged by law to act in the way that will best benefit their shareholders at all times. Nothing takes precedence over this. A publicly traded health care corporation is not in business to provide health care; that is a side effect. They are in business to provide as much profit as possible to their shareholders. This means that the person deciding what treatment a patient is going to get is going to make the decision that best benefits the corporation, not the patient. It also means that the extortion is not just a morally reprehensible policy, it is dictated by law.

A publicly operated health care provider, on the other hand, such as is found all over the rest of the industrialized world, exists to provide health care to the patient. Its employees will make the decision that best benefits the patient. 

Which would you prefer? To have your medical decisions made by someone who is paid to deny you care if they can find any reason to do so, or by someone whose job it is to make and keep you healthy? 

Single Housing

A greater proportion of the population is single today than has been the case in the past. In addition there is also a significant number of people who are stuck in relationships they would leave if not for the fact that they cannot afford to live alone. Yet there is very little housing specifically designed for single people, and the commercial world in general does not accommodate them. For instance restaurants frequently offer two for one deals, which is of little use to a single person. Restaurants, with the exception of fast food places are not particularly welcoming to lone diners. Two people sharing expenses can live on less than two individual single people.

Part of the problem is our tendency to try to fit everyone into some version of the standard American lifestyle. We have a very limited choice of types of community (city, small town, country) and within those we are expected to occupy one of a limited number of kinds of dwelling and have a more or less “normal” social life. When we design schemes for housing the homeless the aim is to integrate them into this system, as though it represented not only the very best way of life that has ever been invented but one that must be preserved at all costs, and furthermore should be followed by everyone. Any proposed way of organizing a community that departs radically from this model is considered threatening to the system, and can only be allowed to exist as a separate, usually despised “cult” somewhere out sight. Even such relatively common and benign institutions such as worker owned cooperatives are viewed with suspicion. 

This tendency presents significant challenges to anyone wishing to  explore new approaches to the problem. New approaches almost always require reconsideration of rules and regulation, particularly with regard to zoning and building codes. In such a litigious society as we inhabit, if the neighbors decide that what you are doing looks just too peculiar, there are a thousand ways they can stop a project dead in its tracks.

Nonetheless we have a homeless situation that demands change, and that cannot be ameliorated without the willingness to consider new ideas. We will not successfully house the homeless unless we are willing to come up with a way of living that is attractive to them. They do not “choose” to live on the street because they prefer it, or because it is the best way of life they can imagine, but rather because none of the options offered to them look any better. We offer the kind of help we think they should have, laden with conditions and expectations that we impose unilaterally upon them. This might possibly be effective if we first thoroughly researched the matter and involved the homeless themselves in the design of programs, but we do not. This will never work. You cannot force people into slots they are unwilling to occupy.

We need new models of community based on the idea of cooperation rather than competition, and fully integrated with the community at large. These communities need to be designed to fill the needs of people who do not necessarily subscribe to the values of society at large. They should be made as much as possible self-governing. One could imagine living spaces comprising multiple small suites, each with a bedroom and a small living room suitable for entertaining three or four people, with a private bathroom and a minimal kitchenette, all sharing a larger communal room with a well equipped kitchen. 

Two or three such units could share laundry facilities and other shared resources. In this way many people could be comfortably and efficiently housed in a relatively small space compared with conventional housing which is extremely inefficient and duplicative in its use of space and resources. Increased density will of course impact sewage disposal, but this can be alleviated by the use of composting toilets, which are readily available in several practical designs and only need the political will to allow them. Such communities, though geared mainly for single people, need not exclude couples and families too, which would simply require a different configuration of living spaces, and could also benefit from the sharing of resources.

The “Undeserving” Poor

Homelessness is a “hot topic” right now, and opinions on the subject appear daily in the papers, online discussion groups and in the coffee shop. In any given conversation the two (or more) sides are often really addressing different aspects of a complex problem. To arrive at any agreement we must first know whether we are trying to end homelessness itself, for instance, or to help those currently homeless, or to clean up the streets and feel safer. Each of these problems will suggest a different kind of solution. 

We also have to acknowledge that poverty is a positive feedback loop. In this case positive is not a good thing. It means that the poorer a person gets, the harder it becomes for them to pull themselves out of poverty. Once you are homeless, life becomes increasingly difficult, and the slope is slippery. In this respect our society is unique among organisms (for society is in fact an organism). All other organisms are self-healing. When an organism detects that some part is ailing, it sends more resources to that part to help it get better. If we injure our bodies, blood flow is increased to the injured area. Our society, on the other hand, reacts to ailing members by withholding resources from them. 

The aspect I would like to address here is the issue of what are sometimes called the undeserving poor. There are very few people who would deny that a great many poor people got that way through no fault of their own, and most have no problem with helping these people. Where the disagreement comes is when people see what they see as “their” money being used to help people who, in their estimation, are poor either through some personal failing or through criminal behavior. They even claim that homelessness is a lifestyle choice for some, and that they do not even want to be helped.

Let us deal with this last contention first, as it is relatively simple. First the homeless population has a higher than average incidence of mental illness, which can cause people to express views and preferences that are not in their own self-interest. It is sometimes said that if being crazy didn’t make you homeless, being homeless would make you crazy. These people need a special kind of help, and their views should not be taken as representative of the majority of homeless people.

Others may refuse the kind of help that is offered for a number of quite valid reasons. It may not be the kind of help that is in fact helpful. For instance, food that needs preparation or must be consumed on the spot may not be useful to them at the time it is offered. Shelters have very restrictive rules about when you have to be out in the morning and what time you can get there in the evening, which may not be practicable for them. They may be hard for them to get to and from. There are countless reasons why someone might not be able to accept the particular form of help offered. This does not mean that there is no possible form of help that would be genuinely useful to them, or that they would reject it if offered. 

It is well nigh impossible to truly understand someone’s situation if you have not experienced it. There is a French expression that translates to “to understand all is to forgive all.” If you could truly know what is was to be that person, you would understand why they were where they are. All of us are the products of our genetics and our environment, neither of which was under our control. We talk of people making bad choices, but what does this really mean? We make choices based on our assessment of what will benefit us. If our assessment tools or our concept of what is in fact beneficial to us are faulty, it is because we are basing them on faulty information. Conversely people who have succeeded have almost universally had someone in their life who has given them good guidance.

Furthermore, what are these bad choices, anyway? Often this turns out to be code for drug taking. This carries several questionable assumptions. First of all poor people cannot afford to buy enough drugs to cause them much harm. A truly debilitating drug habit is very expensive. Homeless people take drugs, certainly, but usually only enough to take the edge off their misery. 

So maybe it was a drug habit that impoverished them in the first place. Using this as a reason to blame them for their situation and refuse help is to say that drug habituation is a moral defect that deserves punishment (in this case the punishment of being deprived of shelter and rejected by society.) Yet if drug habituation is a moral defect this would condemn a large percentage of the population, most of whom are habituated to some drug or more than one. We have not been able to identify any society in history that did not use mind altering substances.

If we are to rationalize refusal to help someone who has fallen on hard times, surely the only acceptable reason is that it was some moral defect that brought them to this state. If some force outside their control impoverished them, we can hardly in good conscience refuse help. Neither can we reasonably condemn them for making stupid decisions. Intelligence, or the ability to make wise decisions, is not evenly distributed in the population. Certainly we can learn to make the best of what we are given, but some are just dealt a weak hand in life. Can we therefore blame them for failing in the system?

So, you might ask, is there no such thing as personal responsibility? Are we to forgive everybody any kind of behavior on the grounds that it was just the way they were brought up? I am not making that argument here; it is a complex topic that deserves its own treatment. What I am saying is that first it is not a helpful standard to apply to the choice of whether or not to help the indigent. People qualify for help because they are in need of it; it is that simple. There are no undeserving poor.