Declaration of Independence: Rights and Values

One of the things that I am finding most interesting about my research on the values of democracy and design is how the process of the Declaration of Independence came about. This is documented in Pauline Maier's American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage Books, 1997) but also in Zinn and Arnove's Voices of A People's History of the US (Seven Stories, 2004).

The final Jefferson Declaration was really one of many that proceeded it. Many of the individual states (Virginia, Pennsylvania) and even labor unions (NY Mechanics Union) had declared Independence from Great Britain. One of the things that I talk about in the intro chapter of my book is the implicit and explicit values of American democracy represented in the Declaration of Independence. It really complicates the story:

To define the values of American democratic government myself, I went back to many of the documents of the founding of the United States government in their draft and final forms: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation, the Constitution, Jefferson’s Notes on the Congress Proceedings, the Federalist Papers, the and the Bill of Rights. In the mark outs and additions found in the draft forms of these documents, I came upon probably the most defining American democratic value – the right to acquire and possess property.  While “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property” appears explicitly in the Virginia Declarations of Rights,  Thomas Jefferson edited the reference to property from his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Historian, Pauline Maier notes that for Jefferson and his contemporaries, happiness would include the acquiring and possession of property, and thus Jefferson’s editorial decisions “perhaps sacrificed the clarity of meaning for the grace of language.”  I propose that, in fact, the story of American democracy is the contradictions between the values of the rights of of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the right to acquire and possess property.

Reading the drafts and debates reminds you that all of these democratic values were contested in one way or another. Its  important to remember this contestedness as we address our own contemporary American democracy. 

Six shooter and the right to own guns

I have an essay for the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference due, so I have to keep it short. I just wanted to ponder the Supreme Court's 2nd Amendment decision on the individual's right to own guns.

Now gun ownership is one of those areas in which I agree with Chris Rock, "No normal decent person is one thing. OK!?! I got some shit I'm conservative about, I got some shit I'm liberal about. Crime - I'm conservative. Prostitution - I'm liberal."

Gun ownership is one of those areas that in spite of viewing Bowling for Columbine 1000 times, I'm "conservative" about, but for liberal reasons and with some caveats. First the caveats, I believe in the individual right to own guns, but there should be restrictions on the types of guns. I do not think semi-automatic or automatic weapons of any kind are valid weapons for hunting or home self-defense, and thus such be banned. I believe that every gun owner should have a license and have required training or be able to pass a "shooting" test in the way that you have to pass a driving test to get a drivers license.

Now the Constitutional issue of the 2nd Amendment hinges on whether gun ownership is permissible for those only part of a militia. The 5-4 split vote was that individuals could own guns without being part of a militia. I agree with this decision because of the underlying assumption behind the 2nd Amendment is that you cannot trust the government to protect you (i.e. Redcoats in your house), thus need to have means of self-defense of the home, community, etc. Granted this was before the standing army, but due to US history with the African-American community (and other communities as well), I do not think it is prudent to trust the government so much that you give up the means to defend your community against potential abuse of power.

The first action of any totalitarian regime is to disarm any oppositional factions. Yes, I might trust an Obama administration, but if for some reason it becomes a totalitarian regime, I want to be able to defend myself against the National Guard or US Military if it rolls tanks down my street.

But you might say, most of the weapons are being used to kill innocent children in drive by shootings. This is where the caveats become important from a policy perspective although I understand the reality of gun theft and running, so that requiring licenses and training does not help the situation. I get it. But, one of the important messages of Bowling for Columbine was that it was not the amount of guns on the streets that caused the rates of homicide in the US, but rather the culture of fear propagated by the media and unscrupulous politicians. Eliminating individual gun ownership may seem to be the most practical solution to gun-related violence, but I would want to approach things from a different perspective. I'd make policies that would require broadcasters to make sure that 50% of their content covered "positive" news. If the FCC can regulate sex, it should regulate violence in the media by saying "Okay, you can have your Murder/Death/Kill, but you have to give equal time to Compassion/Life/Alturism."

Now the irony of all this is that I do not own a gun, nor do I desire to own one.

Democracy versus Expediency: the Democratic Race

I am completely baffled by calls in the media and blogosphere for Hilary to throw in the towel. The NY Times' Jody Cantor, again  raised the question of whether a long campaign will hurt the Democratic party. But by asking Hilary Clinton to quit the raise, when any where from 40-60% of the people are still voting for her, would we not hurt democracy?

Indiana, whose citizen's votes rarely count in the Presidential Primary because the decision is over by Super Tuesday in February, is going to be relevant for deciding who our next Democratic candidate will be. Montana and South Dakota,  last on the primary calendar, should be relevant come June.

Democracy is good for the Democratic party because democracy reflects the will of the people. If the people are divided in their will that process should be allowed to follow its course. To say that the millions of people should not have the right to make a difference seems worse than any fracturing of the Democracy party that can happen at the August Convention.

Shame on those picking expediency for the political parties over the democratic process of the people.

Design policy: viral generations and best interests

Yesterday, I had lunch with one of my favorite people, Randy Mark. We had a very interesting discussion about the underlying assumptions of those trained in economics and generation differences in how we approach problem solving. So he started with the statement that most economists are trained to believe that people understand best their own self interests and thus make decisions that seek to optimize their interests. This in some ways is contrasted to some Marxist positions that imply that people's consciousnesses need to be raised so that they can understand what their true interests are.

As an anthropologist, I always believe that people understand best their own self interests. This is why you seek to understand and represent their experiences on their own terms through an ethnographic perspective. Yet, I also believe that people's decision-making is (1) constrained by the circumstances under which they can make choices and (2) not always rational because there are often conflicts amongst the various "best" interests that one holds. So what the Marxist position addresses is the conditions of the constrained circumstances and mitigating conflicts among best interests. The latter it does but telling you to prioritize your class interests over those of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationalism, etc. I tend to waiver on the Marxist thing because of the whole "false consciousness" thing. I tend to be more Gramscian, in that you can have contradictory consciousness but not false consciousness. Note: Antonio Gramsci was a philosopher who gave us the terms hegemony and contradictory consciousness. His Prison Notebooks was required reading in almost all of my classes as Stanford in Anthropology and Modern Thought and Literature.

But assuming that you assume people know their bests interests although they may be constrained in acting on them, how do big problems, such as those of policy, get solved? What Randy stated is for his generation (the Baby Boomers), you get a bunch of smart people in the room and have them come up with the solution. This approach made since before the ubiquity of the Internet made access to information more widely available. One could assume that only a few "experts" had access to the right information located in Academies and Think Tanks and thus could be informed to make important decisions.

For my generation, the approach is much more distributed, localized, and viral. You get a bunch of people all over the world with deep knowledge of their local conditions, have them post information in a digital format (YouTube, listserve, email, etc.), and through nodal to nodal sharing inform themselves of similarities and differences in how they should approach policy decisions. This is the basis of the proposal I want to put together for the IFG Ulm designing politics competition. A kit-o-parts for DIY Design Policy that creates a global common framework for capturing, communicating, and comparing design policy issues that respects the local conditions and local knowledge.

Anyway, it was really great discussion, which I hope to be able to have more often. 

Life and Taxes

I don't know if I have been hanging out with the IRS too long or I've acclimated myself to government forms, but I just completed my taxes in about 1 hour and 15 minutes, including gathering up all the supporting documents. More surprisingly, I found the entire process very easy in spite of the complications of now having business income (Requiring Schedule C-EZ) and filing married separately.

For the past 6-7 years,  Mohammed and I had HR Block do our taxes because Mohammed was an immigrant and a student, so there were always complications with fellowships and stuff. So this year was the first time that I had to use the IRS 1040 form.pdf in a long time. It was really simple to use (mostly because I don't have all those crazy deductions and credits that make it complicated).  Yet, there were also cool aspects of the design that made it easy to follow.

For example, the Adjusted Gross Income section was indented so that if you had them, you can do the calculations without confusing you when you get to the total. If you did not have Adjusted Gross Income, you could skip the entire section until the last row in which you could place the out-dented total adjusted income.

Or how in the Tax and Credit Section or Payment Sections, the really complicated calculations are indented, with the final totals out-dented.

Other usable design elements were the listing of which additional forms to attach and where one should place data from those forms, such as the Schedule C for business income or Form 3903 for moving expenses.

So it becomes an interesting problem that it is not the design of the IRS forms that make paying taxes complicated, but rather the tax laws and itemization and credits that make it complicated. I could imagine a situation in which you have several additional forms to complete for different line items. Yet, the 1040 Form is not complicated in and of itself. But again, I've been hanging out with the IRS a long time, perhaps I've drunken the Kool-Aid.

Splitting the delegates

So as I ask around today, it seems I am not the only one who was split between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. In Illinois, you select the candidate but you also get to elect the delegates. I and other friends (even in other states) dealt with our being torn by splitting the candidates. So many this is why the delegate counts seem so crazy on Real Clear Politics table.  Hilary Clinton has 1012 delegates, while Barack Obama has 933.

In Illinois, Obama won 96 delegate while Clinton won 49. I wonder which part of that was based on percentages and which was based on people splitting the delegates. I'm too tired to do the calculations.

The point is I am still undecided about Clinton and Obama even after the vote.

Election information blues

The Illinois primary elections are on Feb 5th. So being a good citizen, I thought I do some research on the candidates and issues. So I got a sample of the Democratic Primary Election ballot, so I can research the issues. Download Dem08_specballot.pdf (PDF). From a design perspective, we still need to work on the non-centered type thing it seems.

The good thing is that sites like Project Vote Smart provides good information about current Federal and State officials. I got good information on the voting records for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (Obama has a lot of Non-Votes in his record), and Senator Dick Durbin (whom I am really coming to like). Project Vote Smart is a good source for State incumbent records, but has no information on their yet-to-be tested opponents.

For example, I have to vote for a State Senator for the 5th district. The incumbent is Senator Rickey Hendon and his opponents listed were Jonathan Singh Bedi and Amy Sue Mertens. I was able to find Bedi and Mertens's campaign websites but they all said the same thing (i.e. I am pro-education funding, pro-ending poverty, pro-safety, pro-CTA funding.) They do not say how they are going to accomplish any of this, at least not in any detail that would help me make a decision.  So not wanting to base such an important decision on the quality of their website designs, I turned to newspaper articles or people's blogs to get a sense of what the candidates will do. Why is it that we base such decisions on what politician's attitudes are versus their behaviors? Even when we get the facts of people's behaviors, we still focus on what they said. I got some issues where there were reports on debates, but I may end up having to vote based on the quality of their website designs. This is not as superficial a reason, because it indicates to me the extent to which the candidate values communication with their constituents, who may not have the leisure to go attend a debate.

What are always challenging elections are the judicial ones for me. I was told a long time ago to visit the Chicago Bar Association who does evaluations on the qualifications of judges. They have recommendations for every election except for this one it. Perhaps, it will be coming out in a week or so. We only have one public question this election, but it pretty straightforward on whether to make it mandatory for the Fed. gov to fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs.

So if I can get my hands on the CBA's recommendations, I would feel like a semi-informed voter.

So Go Vote Smartly!!!

Perils of being a state employee

As faculty at University of Illinois at Chicago, I am an employee of the State of Illinois. I have adapted to being part of a government bureaucracy, but did not realize what it meant to have the State as your boss. Illinois had tremendous difficulty passing the State budget. The Senate only passed one proposal today. If it does not pass today, then we State employees do not get paid.

UofI President White had sent us emails telling us to continue working when the budget was not passed by July 31st. It seems so strange.

The budget crises reminds me of why it is important to make governance more accountable and compelling to people. There is no transparency in the Illinois budgeting process, and by bringing it up to the deadline for State workers to get paid, they reduce the likelihood of dissent. Who wants to be responsible for teachers not getting paid?

The budget includes no money for CTA, which seems short-sighted, given it is the lifeblood of the major city. They are wanting to propose a casino for Chicago which is a sin tax against the poor and middle classes who gamble, instead of raising taxes for everyone as part of the common good.

The pork barrel aspect of the budget is more complicated. Its about the allocation of money for local projects, which seems valid in that the legislators would know what local priorities exist and should have some discretion in funding them. There needs to be a rebranding of that practice in some ways. Yes, it gets abused, but the oversight should be on developing processes by which the priorities are decided, not on whether there should be funding provided.

But as Winston Churchill said, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Values/Design/Experience at the IRS

Yesterday, I gave a presentation, Values/Design/Experience, to the IRS. There were over 40 people in attendance, including, Ms. Denise Fayne, director of Media and Publications and the Frank Keith, Director of Communications and Liaisons.

The presentation was part of the celebration of the IRS graphics group's Design Management Project accomplishments. My presentation blurb was the following:

How does design translate your organization’s values into internal and external audience experiences?

Designed memos, forms, brochures, websites, advertisements all mean something to people. This meaning is not just about the information conveyed but about the values experienced. Dr. Dori Tunstall will engage you in a conversation about how design translates organizational values into internal and external audience experiences. Dori will show you how values-based anthropological and design management approaches can positively affect your department’s performance, morale, and communications both internally and externally.

There reception of my message was very positive. The IRS directors were nodding their heads at all the right points.  I kept those who would normally fall asleep awake with my enthusiasm and  “passion” for the topic. What makes me happy as that the IRS people found it inspirational. A core message was that the IRS has a unique mandate in American democracy; it collects the revenue that funds the common good. There were small things that people appreciated, such as the use of subtitles/captions on my slides to support those with hearing impairments. I learned this from my student, Leilah Rampa, who did that on her presentations.

People kept asking me how I got into the design and governance thing. Basically, I realized that I am a true believer in the idea of democracy. As the first generation of African Americans to be freed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I see it as extending the civil rights movement by bringing it from a position of outsider protest to insider process.

I think the Values/Design/Experience framework is a good one. Each government agency has unique values depending on its core intention (count citizens, collect revenue to fund the common good, prioritize issues, serve justice) within American democracy. I hope through design and anthropology to help make those intentions real.

So here is the link to the lo-res version of the presentation  Download Valdesexp_prez_final_lo.pdf (PDF 1.4 MB). Enjoy, leave comments, but please do not cite or circulate without authors permission. (smile)

American Values and Design

I just came from seeing the movie Sicko by Michael Moore. I found it a very engaging critique of the American health system. It felt less heavy handed than his previous film, Bowling for Columbine, although the camera, in an Oxfam commercial effect, seems to focus too much on people crying. For those who do not know, Sicko is Michael Moore's documentary/expose on the lack of universal healthcare in the US. It deconstructs the myths behind why there should not be universal healthcare in the US by exposing the maximization of profit over care in the HMO system, and the effectiveness of universal healthcare in Canada, Britain, France, and Cuba. By the time you are done, you really want to move to France although one wonders what affect  President Nicolas Sarkozy will have on universal healthcare, the 35-hour work week, 5 weeks minimal vacation, 6 month paid maternity leave, practically free child care, and the services in which new mothers are provided a helping, who will do your laundry.

Besides reconsidering a move to France, what it really made me reflect on was American values. Perhaps because I am giving a presentation on Values/Design/Experience next week at the IRS, it helped me refine three specific points regarding design and American governmentality:

  1. The valuation of your life (or that of your kids, community, or nation) over that of others is the root of all evil. Thus, the valuation of profit over the lives of others should be a one way ticket to the Inferno.
  2. The core value of any American government agency should be democracy, or strengthening the power of the people. In the same way that speed is the core value or "brand essence" of Nike.
  3. Design is the translator of these values into tangible experiences for people.

The valuation of your life over others

This past week in my 365 Tao Daily Meditations written by Deng Ming-Dao, there was a line about how "every person should be equally valued as a human being." I thought a lot about how evil happens when we say that my life, my family's, my community's, my country's life has more value than this human beings. In the case of health care, there seems to be an attitude by the Health Industry, that their profits are more valuable than the lives of human beings. This is discussed ad naseum in the film the Corporation. Yet what became apparent in the section of Sicko about the HMO industry was how, starting with the pact between Nixon and Henry Kaiser in 1973, the government became complicit in the industry's murder of people due to denial of service.

It puts into perspective for me, what is happening at the Cook County Bureau of Health Services and the patient billing and payment policy. The conflict between the Bureau staff and even administration I would say, who are focused on providing care, and the government which seeks to fill its budget deficits. Although the idea of the policy is to get those who can pay to help subsidize those who cannot pay, there is a higher costs involved with patients and dcotors worrying about money as opposed to health, that makes the contrast with Canada, Britain, and France seem so stark.

The Value Democracy

In the movie, this British labor gentleman states that there are two ways to rule through fear and through demoralization. He goes on to say how in France, the government is afraid of the people, while in the US, the people are afraid of the government. As I said, next week I am giving a presentation at the IRS, and part of what I want to talk about is the value, democracy, and what it means to translate that into tangible experiences for people. Democracy is government by the people governed. I had an interesting discussion with a friend about the removal of the barrier between the government and the governed, because the governed are the government itself, not an alien other. Thus, the brand of any government agency should be people's participation of the "conduct of conduct" of governance. This means people's involvement in the formation of law and policy, in the citizen-centered design of government artifacts, and the evaluation of those policies and artifacts as they impact their lives.  The message of any government interaction should be one of, "I am the government and can make positive change."

Design as translator of values into experiences

AIGA expresses this idea of design as the intermediary between information and experience. I prefer the metaphor of translator  because it further defines the role and the requirements of being an effective designer in the government sector. The designer as translator has to have in depth knowledge of both cultures whose values are being translated. She has to know the nuances of each language in both their connotations and denotations for various sub-cultures in the group. She has to select the right word, image, symbol, material, to align the meanings of both languages to achieve communication.  She has to do so with the understanding of the full gravity of those choices to avoid any diplomatic incidents. Because through her efforts, the abstract becomes tangible and people can then react to it, positively, negatively, or neutrally, but they respond to the experience her words create. What is being made manifest is more than information (which assumes a decontextualized neutrality of meaning) but values. It is values that people experience, not information.

For America, we really need to look at our values, particularly our value of democracy, and how it embodies the idea the "everyone should be valued as a human being." For design and designers, we need to align all of our decisions towards the manifestation of that value, democracy. As an African American woman, born within the first generation of that group to truly be born free (due to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), I carry the hope that it IS possible for our government agencies to embody the value of Democracy or at least I am willing to work towards it.