Ron Rivers • OurSociety Free Local Election Campaign Platfor – 501c3 non-profit company
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What is a Free Society?

By Ron Rivers,

This essay is deeply influenced by my research over the past three years focusing on the articles, lectures, and books authored by Roberto Mangabeira Unger.  It is necessary to pay an intellectual debt to his theories and vision of the future as over the years they have been one of the primary drivers of my understanding of the possible.  While the conception of a free society below draws from his works, it is intertwined with my perspective as an activist, independent researcher, and civic entrepreneur.

What is freedom?  It depends who you ask.   It seems like every political party has their interpretation of the freedom that they believe is best for them.    That’s not a critique; it’s hard to put your finger on the concept.  Freedom is a lot like fear, anger, happiness, and love. We know them when we feel them, and they’re meaningful parts of the human experience, but we can never accurately give them form.  Despite that, we yearn for more.

If we’re ever going to have a chance of deepening our freedom we better start by understanding what we want.

Are you feeling free yet?

For many of us, things feel bad now.  It doesn’t matter which political team you root for; our combined anxiety is palpable.   Climate change, mass extinctions, government shutdowns, systemic racism, a healthcare system designed to extract wealth, an opioid epidemic fueled by desolation of purpose, and so many elected representatives who act as corporate agents.  Its a system supported by massive wealth inequality empowered through legislative policy by every administration since Nixon. It makes me anxious just writing it. Where did the practice of democracy go wrong?

The idea of freedom that produced our present institutions is drawn from classical liberalism.  It combined the belief of empowerment of the individual with the institutional arrangements of society.   The laws surrounding property and contract being central to this historical framework. We know now that this organization of economy and state has failed to increase agency in every individual as promised because much of America’s population exists within a state of economic oppression.   

Our version of a market economy has evolved over the years with mixed results.  It has produced incredible innovations in many different directions while simultaneously disenfranchising entire classes of people via debt-fueled serfdom.    We know that three families hold wealth that is four million times larger than the median wealth of American families and three men (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet) own more wealth than the bottom half of our country combined. [1]  Entire books have been written about the damage that wealth inequality is causing in societies today.  

We should not reduce the argument to just wealth.  The most important indicator of the need for alternatives is that our institutions deny the vast majority of our population the opportunity to develop their potential within the world.   Our mistake has not been choosing capitalism as our system; our mistake is the dogmatic worship of its present form.

So how do we address this error?  We can start by taking a lesson from history.  The liberals and socialists had insightful ideas about future structures of social order.  They understood that social structures should be used for the good of the majority. We differ from the past through our commitment to rejecting absolute devotion to any single institutional arrangement   We can learn from history without being ruled by it.

Deeper freedom is both possible and achievable, but it requires an alternative vision of the future from anything offered presently.  If we can develop a genuine alternative for good then we will ignite our collective hope for the future.

Freedom to be

Reimagining a structure for a free society begins with identifying the values we want to codify into our institutions.  Structures impose a certain way of living and thinking upon us and by existing within institutions our understanding of the world is formed.  Just as the liberals of the past intertwined property ownership into the definition of freedom and institutional arrangement so must we establish a core set of values that we will use to measure the success of our structure.  

To start, we should agree to avoid any attempt to be neutral. This translates into the abandonment of policy that is considered a central compromise between the artificial construct of right and left political ideals.  People and experiences can never be successfully classified by efforts that attempt to shrink alternative visions of the future into a handful of fringe issues. No law impacting our political, economic, or social institutions can ever be neutral.  Every arrangement that we might choose encourages some forms of experience while discouraging others. Claiming to be neutral, or claiming a potential direction to be neutral, will almost certainly serve to entrench ideals that favor present power structures further.   Neutrality is a false goal and denies us the possibility of realizing genuine transformation.

We want to create a set of value-driven structures that respect each individual while empowering them to explore their limitless potential.  It is in this belief that we form the foundation of a profoundly free society. Entering into this political effort, we understand and embrace that no concept of a free society is definitive or all inclusive.  Everything is subject to change and over time our vision of the good will be replaced by a bigger version drawing from experiences we have yet to perceive. Each new structural innovation represents a limit to be surpassed, a snapshot of history.  Through this culture of perpetual change, we continuously expand our understanding of ourselves alongside our institutional arrangements.

Embarking on reimagination of our most fundamental rights requires embracing an absolute truth; we do not know what we do not know.  Existence is a series of moments experienced in an identifiable section of space-time, an infinite present. Today we can only learn from the past, therefore we have a limited view of what the future of society and humanity can be.  If we constrain our ability to transform the economic, social, and political structures of society then we choose to limit our self-understanding.

Embarking on reimagination of our most fundamental rights requires embracing an absolute truth; we do not know what we do not know.  Existence is a series of moments experienced in an identifiable section of space-time, an infinite present. Today we can only learn from the past, therefore we have a limited view of what the future of society and humanity can be.  If we limit our ability to transform the economic, social, and political structures of society then we choose to limit our self-understanding.

Freedom to create

We’ve established the relationship between the structure of society and the self while laying a core foundational principle of deep freedom.  Now we give the ideals of a free society meaning by exploring the institutional change necessary to manifest it.

We define structure as the institutional and ideological truths that define our routine practices, transactions, and conflicts, many of which we take for granted.  Creating pathways to transform structure will always weaken present arrangements in favor of the new. This is the ideal outcome, perpetually decreasing the power of the past over the present.

We design society to maximize access and agency for every individual. Our intent is to ensure that everyone has the educational, economic, and political tools necessary to move between actions within existing frameworks and new ones that challenge it.  Every person can freely choose to labor in an established methodology or challenge that path in search for something greater. We encourage imagination in all directions, marrying passion and labor together.

Education becomes primary and allows each of us to have the depth needed to transcend the way things are. Access to continuous education at all stages of life is a requirement of any free society moving forward.  The exponential growth rate technology [2] guarantees massive disruption in our present routines and will continue to generate situations where we will be forced out of our comfort zones and into new pathways of exploring the world.  Armed with this knowledge we imbue the primacy of education into our economic, social, and political institutions. Any person who wants to change the direction of their efforts within the world is provided access to the most advanced educational resources available.  There is no restriction or requirement.

Freedom of Opportunity and Equality

A genuinely free society shapes the concepts of opportunity and equality in the form of a series of personal and social protections that are completely secure.   Each person has access to a type of education that is continuous, allowing for the redirecting of their efforts to continuously grow and innovate in whatever direction they desire. Deep freedom breaks from our present structure in that we remove the constraint of our identity and security being tied to a specific form of living.   We choose a future that allows us to adapt to become greater versions of ourselves continuously.

You can imagine this suite of vital protections as an updated bill of rights, beginning from the present and written in a way that is open to continuous revision as progress reveals new needs.   Keeping in mind our intention of the maximization of access and agency of the individual we can begin with suggesting a framework of focus. We can refer to them as the Seven Dignities. Food/water, shelter, healthcare, education, information, transportation, and communication.  By ensuring every individual access to these resources as a fundamental right, we remove the power of being born into an advantaged class. To embrace these dignities is to deem the equality of respect and opportunity as sacred within humanity.

No free society can ever have a class structure.  The division of peoples into factions defined by material wealth becomes illegal.  Inequalities created through entrenched power structures in our political, economic, and cultural are also banned.  It is because of class structures that the present order denies freedom as we have outlined above.    A society that prioritizes material wealth as the primary indicator of success will always deny people equal access to opportunity as the very structure generates inequity by design.  The fact is millions of Americans [3] are subject to a level absolute poverty that denies them any agency of transformation within the world. Present structure prevents these people any opportunity of self-improvement, failing the proclaimed objective of democracy as it exists today.   No person or groups of people retain the right to refuse the other of their power of transformation.

A free society discourages the worship of power.  Power today is typically translated in control of an industry or political region but can also be classified as cultural.  The problem with worshiping power as we do now is that it inhibits the talents of the powerful while simultaneously disenfranchising those without.  We know from countless biographies that in many cases people with remarkable talent or natural advantage are motivated by the very process of doing. Concentrating their cultural and material power above others does nothing for their ability to create and poses a genuine risk to the philosophy of inclusive cooperation required by a free society. We reject the myth that people need material incentive to innovate that pervades society — recognizing that if given access to the necessary resources to dive deeply into passion the individual works for the very purpose of the work.

Equality and opportunity impact our relation to one another as well.  No person has the right to coerce another. No state or organization can act as an instrument of oppression of an individual.  As our ability to transcend circumstances of the present defines our humanity so then do we structure our legal arrangements as always to honor this commitment to one another.  We meet attempts to establish thought and structure regimes based on coercion with total opposition.

In guaranteeing the freedom of equality and opportunity, we do not accept the disenfranchisement of the many for the benefit of the few.   It requires us to be aware of new inequalities that arise and to proactively correct them. To be clear, this is not an argument for equality of outcomes which is not feasible and detrimental to the human potential.  A free society promises no success in results while simultaneously maximizing the opportunity to attempt innovation.

Labor in a Free Society

One of the biggest tragedies of the present liberal order is the abandonment of what some of history’s most admired leaders believed of wage labor.  Abraham Lincoln was one of many who thought that wage labor was an inadequate labor arrangement drawing comparisons to slavery. [4] Free labor defined as an economic model where people have access to the resources necessary to pursue work in any vertical they would choose.   A free society rejects the notion that economically dependent wage labor is a natural occurrence choosing instead to embrace the link between work and personal transcendence.

No person should ever have to do a job a machine can do.  Any repetition we observe can translate into a formula that we program into machines and software.  As soon as advancements allow we implement innovations across all industries. In doing so, we give every person the ability to spend their time focusing on creating and innovating.  Reflecting on the present day, the looming crisis of automation becomes our most significant opportunity. Automation spreads throughout all industries through the extension of access of the most advanced technologies and practices to all organizations.  By challenging our perceptions of how we organize labor on a macro scale, we can create a structure to radically deepen every person’s ability to work how they desire.    

This definition of labor is both feasible and necessary.  Automation has already transformed industries that historically relied on low-skilled factory labor and has already begun to advance into what would presently be defined as high-skilled labor. [5]  Everything we know about the nature of work is changing, and we must structure our institutions and society in a way that embraces this change for our benefit.

Cooperative competition becomes the standard practice for labor.     Firms are structured in a way that they compete on the value of the services and goods they offer.  Systems are built to deepen cooperative efforts such as collaborative purchasing, dissemination of best practices, and access to the most advanced technologies and tools to all organizations a sector.   Every person seeking to innovate has access to our collective knowledge about the best methods existing in the present which in turn allow them to begin work on creating the new. Redefining how we view competition in our markets enable us to empower our citizenry to deeper levels of freedom in their labor and direction within the world.

A free society embraces the most advanced form of production and rejects the notion that any single organization, or group of organizations, have the exclusive right to create using the most advanced methodologies.  The Knowledge Economy requires highly skilled and highly transferable labor. It is the responsibility of a free society to ensure that every person has access to the resources necessary to improve themselves and participate in the form of labor of their choice.

Cooperative competition turns disagreements into opportunities to grow in different directions.  Each person, protected from belittlement through their rights to equality and opportunity, is now given a chance to experiment.  Reinforced by the understanding that failure to innovate is a lesson in what did not work, we remove the decimation of a person’s livelihood as a potential risk of an unsuccessful attempt to innovate.  This philosophy extends beyond just markets, allowing us to encourage greater competition among competing ideas of the good economically, culturally, and politically.   

Change as Structure

The framework of a free society outlined in this essay is not a direct translation into a specific set of institutions.  Our shared goal is the deepening of freedom and what that means will evolve. This evolution develops our ideas of what is possible perpetually, further inspiring innovations and improvements in our structural arrangements.  No institution is sacred in a free society; all are subject to revision. Change in structural arrangements is implemented in all directions. Locally upwards or nationally downwards we seek to advance without bias. We empower ourselves to explore our ideas and discover the gaps in our understanding.  Over time we will continue to discover what we want.

Everything suggested here will be analyzed for replacement in the future.  A free society embraces change as an integral part of the structure. Humans are context driven beings – we draw understanding and inspiration from the world around us.  Free societies continuously push the human potential beyond understood limitations. They develop our ability to express love and imagination for the world.

Shifting our efforts and focus may not manifest our personal goals of social transformation within our lifetimes.  We accept this fate in our commitment, knowing that our efforts towards the recognition of this good expand us all.

The future learns nothing from the past.  A free society can only be created now, at this moment.  Together we can reject the rule of the past on the present.  Uniting under the purpose of redefining what it means to be free we rekindle the shared spirit of the American people.  It’s a vision of shared greatness, an inclusive and pluralistic arrangement that expands our ability to grow and learn well beyond the limitations of the present.  A free society is one that evolves alongside its people in a state of intertwined expansion of the possible.

[1] Billionaire Bonanza 2018: Inherited Wealth Dynasties in the 21st-Century U.S. by Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie

[2] Technology Feels Like It’s Accelerating — Because It Actually Is by Alison E. Berman and Jason Dorrier Singularity Hub

[3] What is the current poverty rate in the United States?  Semega, J; Fontenot, KR; Kollar, MA. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017. Census Bureau, September 2018

[4] Anarchism and Power Interview with Noam Chomsky by Harry Kreisler 2002 Berkely

[5] AI Starts Taking White-Collar Jobs by David Cassel The New Stack

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Understanding Our Opportunity – Local Election Reform

By Ron Rivers,

The 2020 Presidential election is already making headlines during this first week of 2019.  Infighting seems to be running rampant with both of the dominant political parties as notable candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser extent, Beta O’Rourke have spoken openly about running on the Democratic ticket while Republicans seem to be in disagreement about whether or not someone should challenge Trump in the Republican primaries. [1]  With all of this focus on the national elections it is easy for progressive thinkers, legislators, and activists to lose sight of the opportunity for significant holistic transformation of society in favor of the fervor surrounding Presidential elections and national hot-button issues.

In this essay, I will argue that the most significant opportunity for the long-term progressive change of society is the revising of our local municipal and state elections.  It’s an argument for bottom-up change that enhances the potential of every individual. If we can separate ourselves from the distractions, we will recognize that real change is both possible and within our grasp in the present time.   

Devils in the Details

Recently OurSociety released its 2018 Annual Report detailing their research and efforts to build a prototype for an online local election campaign information platform in New Jersey.  The information presented paints an overlooked but a specific flaw in our political process. In 2018 only 329 of the 1404 candidates running for local offices such as Mayor, Councilperson, or Committee Member had a dedicated online website or Facebook page about their campaign for office.  To put it another way, 77% of candidates running for local office in New Jersey had no online information about why they were running and what they intended to do if elected.

The data presented is a localized sample, but we can imagine that if a coastal, diverse [2], and wealthy [3] state like New Jersey is performing so poorly on transparent local election information, it is possible that other states may be facing the same problem.  This absence of candidate info directly translates to a lack of options for voters. It negates the argument that people don’t participate in local politics because they are lazy or uninterested, instead revealing that the details necessary to facilitate participation are merely unavailable.  

Data breakdown from the 2018 Impact Report

In 2018 it takes about 30 minutes to set up a proper website via WordPress and even less for a social media page.  Millennials are the largest voting bloc [4], and nearly the entire generation are internet users [5].  Given the facts, I find it difficult to imagine an acceptable reason as to why the vast majority of candidates chose not to make an effort to provide information online regarding their candidacy.   Humans are context driven beings, if we fail to provide pathways for understanding within our political structure we will never succeed in the expansion of democratic participation.

Overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood?

As the data presented on New Jersey local candidate elections primarily focused on access to information, we can only speculate as to why candidates’ online presence was so deficient in 2018.  Solving this problem requires us to be a bit imaginative in our exploration of potential obstacles, but in doing so, we can begin to develop a framework for how to best address this issue.

Using a Bloomberg Cities [6] analysis as a starting point, we find that three-quarters of the 1400+ mayors surveyed were over the age of 50.   According to a 2018 Pew Research study [7], little more than half of the people over 50 engage in the most popular online platforms (Facebook and YouTube) available today.  

If we assume that the age range of U.S. municipality council members is similar to that of U.S. mayors we have our first potential clue as to why information may be so lax.  It’s possible that the lack of sufficient online candidacy information is a generational issue. Simply put, the people running for leadership positions in our local communities are, by in large, not of the internet generation.    This translates to some potential issues ranging from fear of the unknown, lack of understanding of how to use online platforms, the perception of the potential value to be gained from posting campaign information online, and others.  

Assuming age factors into answering why so few of the 2018 candidates posted information online about their candidacy we can implement actions to address these concerns in the future proactively.  Demonstrating the value of having your candidacy information online can be addressed by providing via localized search data and community surveying. Having local candidate information online ensures that candidates can be viewed an understood by all community members, not just those few who can attend in person gatherings. saw local candidate info searches spike nearing election day

To address fears regarding the use of a new communication medium we make sure that every candidate running for office had the opportunity to speak with a support team member who will help onboard them onto the platform.  Via phone, virtual screen-share, or in person we will provide candidates an opportunity to learn the platform as their profile is being set up. By offering a personalized onboarding experience, we remove the barriers associated with learning new technologies.

Beyond possible age-related challenges, we could imagine that local candidates may have thought that posting their candidacy information online was just unnecessary.  Local elections get little if any press compared to larger state and national elections. Mayors and council members focus their time and efforts on solving issues impacting their local community such as traffic and parking, public safety, local economic growth, roads, and affordable housing.  These issues have a high frequency of impact for many community members but lack the excitement and outrage spewed forth from the national political machines. The error in this line of thinking is to confuse a lack of enthusiasm for lack of interest. Community members want to know who their options are, what they stand for, and why they are running for office.  Denying them access to that information in an easy and convenient format by abstaining from the effort to make it available is an undemocratic practice.

Of course, there may be more cynical reasons why candidates may want to avoid having their campaign information online.  The adage, “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.” rings true in many minds today. There are Mayors in New Jersey who have held the same office since 1991, some of which whom have run unopposed on multiple occasions.  Candidates may believe that is in their best interest to stay under the radar, relying on column placement and the single letter next to their name to win the office. Unfortunately for their constituents, it seems as though their strategy is historically correct.   

Reforming Local Elections

Improving citizen access to local candidate information will require a multi-pronged approach but is an effort well worth pursuing.  At the time of this writing, we observe a renewed passion for election reform being presented from the Democrats [8] which is a positive step but still misses the mark of developing systemic improvement.  Campaign finance reform, voting rights reforms, redistricting, and ethics reforms are all steps in the right direction but will do nothing to raise the temperature of democracy in the United States. Deepening access and agency within the electoral process for all citizens is a core progressive goal of transformation in our democracy.  To do that we must begin foundationally, focusing on communities and local elections.

The legislative solution is that candidates should be required, by law, to have information about their campaign posted in an easily accessible online format. Accurately answering the questions of who they are, their professional history, and their vision for the communities they desire to serve.  This information would be required at the time official candidate registration and would deny candidates the ability to run if they were unwilling to share information about their campaign.

There are numerous options as to how candidates might present this option.  In setting up these options candidates would want to focus on ease of access to their platform of choice, cost (both time and capital), and the ability to connect with community members seeking to engage.

The first is a dedicated website such as which at the time of this writing costs $8.99.  A site hosted on WordPress with a free template the setup would take about 30 minutes and require a moderate level of technical competency.  The challenge with this option is for people who lack web design experience you’re going to have many websites that organize information poorly, are challenging to navigate, and do not present information consistently across the multiple candidate websites.  The result is a bad user experience, shifting learning about candidate options into a laborious task. Still, a poorly designed website is better than no site when it comes to candidate information.

The second option would be Facebook.  I am loathed to suggest Facebook for reasons  I will outline, but it is the most popular option for users in the standard age demographic of mayors in the U.S. and relatively easy to set up.  Facebook is the worst option for many reasons. First, tying a pay for views model like Facebook’s to local campaigns perpetuates the very problem we are attempting to solve, access.  If you aren’t paying Facebook to advertise your posts are not being seen by your followers. Second, shifting our local elections into the primary control of a for-profit organization will set us back in the fight in removing money from politics.   Third, Facebook has been dishonest for years in regards to Russian interference [9] and have attempted to use public relations firms to deflect from their problems. [10] We cannot trust the organization or its leadership to hold a stake in a vitally important public institution.

The third option that I will argue strongly for is the OurSociety platform or another like it.  There are key elements designed into the platform make it ideal for this exact function.  The organization is structured as a non-partisan 501c3 non-profit. It promotes no political agenda and offers no advantage to any candidate or contest.  It is free for everyone to use as a candidate or citizen.

User experience is central to the design offering tools for people at all interests levels.  Feature suites allow citizen users an experience designed to help them better digest the information in a format that resonates with them.  Candidate users have a professional grade suite of tools to help make accessing volunteers, organizing events, and sharing their ideas with the community.   Information is presented clearly in a concise manner that can expand easily. The entire database of candidates is available, but the default is a localized experience to whom we see on our ballot.

Sustaining Future Progress

In developing innovative solutions we must proactively address the inevitable challenges.  Who will pay for it? The platform can be designed to sustain itself if needed, free of any public investment. I propose a revenue model that creates sustainability through small fees charged to the winning candidates based on the position and length of term.  We can allow the public to decide if the winning candidate should pay this fee or subsidized by public tax dollars.  The latter being a great choice if the community as a whole wants running for office to be completely free of financial influence.  In the public funding scenario, sponsoring the winning candidates in my 2018 hometown elections would have cost every resident slightly less than a penny.   Excess revenues beyond direct costs are used to fund continuous platform improvement as the user base evolves.

The most compelling aspect of this model is that it doesn’t just remove money from politics; it transcends it.  A state-sponsored candidate platform gives candidates more exposure than they could ever get through paid advertisements through traditional media.  Aligned with legislation for the dramatic reduction of money in politics, a non-partisan, non-profit election info portal is a restructuring of how people access democracy at a local level and beyond.    

Citizen awareness can be achieved through multiple channels such as including information about the platform with sample ballots, advertising through popular search engines and social media channels, interviews with the program architects in local news media, and official press conferences announcing the structural reformation.  The state could also mandate an educational requirement for all high school seniors to spend an hour learning about the platform and participating in dialogue about the candidate options in their municipalities. Presenting information in a relevant and concise manner in a format that resonates with the user will ensure quicker adaptation and use.  If we are to engage our youth in the democratic process an online access platform provides the best pathway to do so.

Looking to the future, if we’re willing to get creative with how we structure the organization, we can experiment with developing a public ownership model with a term-limited rotating citizen board.  Scaling this model up to a national level is an achievable goal within a reasonable timeframe and would allow us to generate revenues that would exceed the possible costs of running the organization. Funds made beyond possible platform expansion can divert into new public projects, which the public can choose democratically.   In doing so, the project comes full circle to its core purpose, deepening democracy.

The vision presented in this argument is one that is both necessary and achievable today.  The policies being discussed by current political leaders to help reform our democratic process are a good start but will ultimately fall short of creating the meaningful change that is possible with a bit of imagination and implementation.  If we reject the path of least resistance and demand systemic solutions, we can create significant and lasting change in our democracy. Access to local election information and the increased participation rates that will follow is the cornerstone for a more transformative future. By imbuing access and agency into our political institutions, we lay the foundation for a democracy that genuinely works for the people, not just those who can afford to make it work.

[1] Romney’s attack prompts call to protect Trump from 2020 primary challenger by David M. Drucker Washington Examiner

[2] These Are The 10 Most Diverse States In America by Chris Kolmar HomeSnacks

[3] List of U.S. States and Terrtories by Income Wikipedia

[4] Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation by Richard Fry Pew Research

[5] Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life by Jingjing Jiang Pew Research

[6] 7 Millennial mayors to watch by Bloomburg Cities

[7] Social Media Use in 2018 by Aaron Smith & Monica Anderson Pew Research

[8] Democrats plan ‘aggressive’ oversight of Federal Election Commission by Dave Levinthal & Ashley Balcerzak Public Integrity

[9] Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Withheld Russia Data, Reports Say by By Sheera Frenkel, Daisuke Wakabayashi and Kate Conger

[10] How Facebook’s PR Firm Used a Conservative News Site to Fiercely Attack Its Rivals by Aaron Mak

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Three Solutions to fix New Jersey’s Minimum Wage Bill

By Ron Rivers,

On Thursday, December 6th, 2018 New Jersey Assembly Speaker Coughlin introduced a bill to increase the minimum wage in New Jersey to $15 per hour by 2024. The bill includes exemptions for small businesses operating with less than ten employees, farm workers, teenagers, and seasonal workers, delaying the increase in minimum wage until 2029. The bill has come under fire from people both for and against a minimum wage increase. We know the data supports a minimum wage increase and while the bill is a step in the right direction, it offers no genuine solution. It teaches us that our legislators are approaching solving the minimum wage challenge from a limited perspective. I argue that with a bit of creativity we can have $15 minimum wage increase by 2023, free from carve-outs, and help small businesses at the same time.

The central problem surrounding the minimum wage bill is the conflict between protecting small businesses and empowering our fellow community members who need a minimum wage increase to better their lives. We are approaching the problem under the assumption that these two challenges are a balancing act. By doing one, we diminish the other.

Image Credit: File Photo/CNN

The bill as written falls short of achieving the desired results of giving more people the ability to improve their lives. According to Brandon McKoy from New Jersey Policy Perspective “Assuming an annual inflation rate of 3 percent per year, a $15 minimum wage in 2029 will only be worth $10.73 in 2018-dollars. ” This bill would raise the real purchasing power of people receiving minimum wage approximately 19.4 cents per year for eleven years. Hardly an effort worth celebrating.

We should also consider the larger picture of how the carve-outs could impact our small business economy. The bill creates a scenario where firms with more than ten employees are required to pay more than those with less. The intention may have been to penalize large corporations, but I struggle with the logic behind choosing ten employees as the baseline. It ignores professional firms that could make millions with a handful of employees while hurting businesses like restaurants and grocery stores which operate on razor-thin margins. More importantly, it creates a scenario where generic Mega-Corp is paying $15 per hour, and the neighborhood Pizza shop is only paying $10 per hour. Basic economic theory would lead us to believe that Mega-Corp will attract better talent because they are paying 33% more. The intangible impact of this bill will be to create an economic culture where the idea of working at a small business becomes an option of last resort. This exclusion creates the real possibility of significant talent drain. If this occurs, the resulting shift in how people view working at a small business won’t be fixed by a bill.

Understanding that this bill fails to meet the needs of both New Jersey residents and purposes genuine long-term threat to small businesses we must consider alternatives. Critics and supporters of the bill share a common theme, we all understand the value small businesses provide to our communities and want them to succeed. We must recognize that the nature of work is changing in the United States and small businesses may require assistance to rethink their strategies on how to prosper. I suggest that we consider the option of deeper government cooperation with small business owners to help with this transition.

#1 – Cooperative Competition

Our administration could work with small businesses owners in New Jersey to implement a more cooperative form of competition. We could facilitate regional purchasing cooperatives for similar industries. The state could provide the tools in the way of information resources, logistical resources, and a digital platform to help coordinate orders for small business owners in specific regions. If we use a Pizza shop as an example, collaborative purchasing would drive down resource costs such as flour, sauce, and cheese for the shop and increase their profitability per slice. This way small businesses can better focus on the things they do best, offering real and personal value in the experience.

#2 – Purchasing Reform

New Jersey could also implement policies and procedures to ensure that our significant spending power is directly locally. According to the Democracy Collaborative[1], implementing local purchasing projects such as the one implemented in Preston, England generate benefits such as growing local business revenues, reducing transportation costs and carbon emissions, reduces transit times allowing for more just-in-time inventory management (to further reduce small business overhead), and removes some of the burden from our national transportation infrastructure.

The first step to realize this plan would be to create clear purchasing goals that are shared with the public. Administratively we would either incentivize or require decision makers to buy locally. The state and our large non-profit institutions such as hospitals and schools would deepen cooperation with municipalities to conduct outreach to the firms with the intention of better understanding and supporting the capacity of our small businesses. Particular emphasis should be placed on outreach to small business owners who suffer from a systemic socioeconomic disadvantage.

#3 – Extend Access

The State could also extend credit in the form of access to advanced technologies and practice directly to small and emerging businesses. We could establish procedures to identify best practices within specific industries and then give them away to all companies within those industries. If we want to encourage start-up growth in our state, we could consider reorganizing corporate law to give innovative firms access to the most advanced forms of technology. Imagine a medical start-up working towards a creative, low-cost disease cure having access to the best technologies and techniques that our pharmaceutical conglomerates have to offer in opening ourselves up to new ways of approaching these problems we increase the probability of success for all involved. Depending on how we want to structure the arrangements the public could share in the benefits of success developed through this new program.

These solutions require reimagining the way we as New Jerseyans support small businesses. Each idea shares the common theme of creating revenue gains that, when recognized, would exceed the costs associated with an increased minimum wage. Let us never forget that the state is an extension of our collective population. Our ability to improve the lives of our fellow community members and create economic progress is limited only by our ideas.

In debating a $15 per hour minimum wage increase, we must reject the notion our choice is limited to a battle between low-wage workers and small business owners. We should work towards the betterment of our lowest earning community members and ensure our small business communities thrive. Governor Murphy and his administration are right to push for a solution to this problem. We don’t lack the will, just the imagination.

[1] Stimulating Economic Growth through Local Purchasing Democracy Collaborative

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Neoliberalism Is Working Exactly As Intended

By Ron Rivers,

A common criticism of capitalism is that the neoliberal approach has failed to meet its intended goals.  We recognize this because we can observe that the United States is becoming increasingly more unequal every year. recently published a study stating that 82% of all the wealth created in 2017 went to the top 1% of economic earners.  [1] Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF), one of neoliberalism’s greatest cheerleaders, has published work that the concept has been oversold to the public. [2]  The truth is neoliberalism hasn’t failed. It’s working as intended.

Neoliberal philosophy is, and always has been, about increasing the wealth of the owners of capital.   It was never intended to bring global prosperity, which is why the criticism that it isn’t working is false.  Neoliberalism wants to allow those who control capital to access new ways of multiplying that capital. The idea is rooted in rewarding capital concentration.   It is a system that manipulates our culture to celebrate greed and predatory practices. For the uninitiated, it promises the possible. You too can be a billionaire if you work hard and stay focused!

The ideal bleeds into our education, communication, and interaction with one another in all works of life.  Only a global culture indoctrinated to neoliberalism would allow a production structure that allocates 45% of the worldwide wealth into the hands of 1% of the population. [3]  From the perspective of the architects, neoliberalism is a spectacular success!

Image Credit:  Matt Wuerker, Politico Magazine

Compounding this challenge is a political class that perpetuates the fantasy that there is something to be saved of the current regime.   This delusion has bled into our public consciousness as well. For example, we can observe vitriolic feedback against measures to raise the quality of life of our lowest earners such as a minimum wage increase.   The data-defying arguing is that this wage increase would hurt small businesses. Neoliberalism has convinced us to approach the problems of inequality under the assumption that creating systemic improvements to help the poor are a balancing act.  By doing one, we diminish the other.    I imagine that the political actors supporting this line of thinking don’t believe for a second that it will last forever, they’re just trying to take advantage of it for a few more years.

Language Matters

The argument being made against the choice of syntax surrounding neoliberalism may seem a bit trivial.  Why does it matter if we say it failed or it succeeded if we agree that economic alternatives need exploring?  It matters because language is the foundation of everything we know and do. By allowing concepts to be incorrectly classified we open ourselves up to further manipulation under the guise of good intentions.  We must reject critics who claim neoliberalism isn’t working as if there was some version of the economic theory that would ever do anything more than concentrate wealth upwards.

We know from the plentiful data available on wealth concentration that the architects of neoliberalism succeeded in their goals.  As our elected leaders push for solutions to attenuate these inequalities, we must insist that they communicate their intentions clearly and concisely.  It is no longer enough to merely humanize the impact of these economic policies; we need alternative visions of the future. Most importantly, armed with the knowledge that neoliberalism is working as intended, we must demand that the architects of alternatives focus on expanding every person’s access and agency to exist within the world and not cater solely to those with economic power in the present.   In rejecting the notion of well-intentioned economic policies gone awry, we take another step towards the progressive transformation of the world.

[1] Reward work, not wealth Oxfam International

[2] Neoliberalism: Oversold?  by Jonathan Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri International Monetary Fund

[3] Global Inequality Facts

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The most important lesson we haven’t learned from Marx.

By Ron Rivers,

Karl Marx is one of the most prolific economists the world has ever known.  His work awakened millions to a deeper understanding of the relationship between labor and capital.  It’s difficult to understate Marx’s influence on present-day left-leaning ideologies, liberals, socialists, and other progressive thinkers draw inspiration from his ideas of the possible.   The embracing of Marxism is fueling the rise of a transformative new political effort here in the United States, while simultaneously limiting our shared imagination of the future. This unintended consequence can be overcome if we begin to think beyond traditional dogmas. If we observe Marx’s works from an alternative perspective, we can open ourselves up to the most important lesson he can teach us.


Structural Vision

Marx explained that societies operate under specific modes of production that define their social, economic, and political institutions.    Each one of these fixed regimes has specific arrangements and challenges unique to its structure.

Observing the present, we find ourselves entrenched in Marx’s warning about the failures of a capitalist mode of production.  Increasing social tensions rooted in economic inequalities between the bourgeoisie (the rich) and the proletariat (working class poor) fuel a growing call for a replacement of capitalism with a socialist model.  Our present Executive branch is staffed with a tiny number of robber baron capitalists pursuing costly policy initiatives that defund public services and balloon our national deficit to provide tax cuts for our nation’s wealthiest members.  What was once a silent bourgeoisie agenda to concentrate wealth is now a deafening war cry.

This collapse is, as Marx predicted, driving people to align with supporting a socialist structure for our production model.  What I am arguing is that if Marx were alive today, he would never endorse Socialism as the next logical path forward. That’s because the premise of Marxism is based on an economic model where manufacturing as the most dominant form of production.   This is no longer be true as the Knowledge Economy holds that mantle. Socialism was not designed for the present and no amount of creative syntax will change the fact that we can do better.

Critics of that statement would claim that a socialist revolution is the majority theme, but from a programmatic standpoint, a wholesale and immediate regime change is both politically unfeasible and potentially dangerous.  The Democratic Socialists of America are doing some great work at the local community level, and I want to be clear that this is not an argument against their efforts, members, or leadership.  Policy-wise we see Socialists taking up the banner of the modern Progressives, Universal Healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, immigration reform, etc. These policies are significant steps in the right direction and deserve recognition, but do nothing to address the structural problems of society.  Instead, they serve to humanize the efforts of the present day conservative movement funded by our oligarchal class. A lack of real structural vision for the transformation and dogmatic adherence to a wholesale socialist substitution is an unintended byproduct of Marxism as it is written and ignores the larger lesson of Marxism.


Mindful recognition

Marx’s brilliance does not relinquish him from the shared burden we all bear.  Our imaginations of systemic alternatives can extend only so far given our orientation in the world today.  All ideas for innovative social change begin at the floor of the established present. Marx framed history as a closed list of alternative modes of production, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism.   Societies progress from one to another, often in a revolutionary format. The push for Socialism here in the United States draws from this same theory; Capitalism hasn’t worked, Socialism is next.

The most prolific aspect of Marx’s work is that the texts are an imaginative expression of how Societies are organized.  In writing Capital, he demonstrated an ability to think beyond the present to share a new vision of how the future might unfold.  His efforts show that there are no closed lists of potential regimes in history if, and only if, we have the foresight to imagine alternatives.  Transformation is subject to no laws and only adheres to the restrictions that we choose to embrace.

Taken literally, the historical texts we draw inspiration from do not provide a way of thinking about structural change today.  Academic, social sciences and policy discussions naturalize our existing arrangements. In imagining alternatives, we turn to Marxist theories which, while historically revolutionary, no longer serve as a viable option for the future.  We abandon the promotion of socialism as the answer while simultaneously applying the best aspects to new alternatives.

In choosing to refuse the potential for greater goods than history provides us we discard one version of structure worship for another.  We choose to rely on the past for salvation instead of our creative capabilities in the present. If we are to manifest a genuine transformation of society and humanity, it falls upon us to abandon dogma and open our minds to the possibility of what we could create given modern technology, information, and resources.

Socialism and the Progressive project align in their vision of demanding a deeply socialized suite of vital protections for all individuals codified into constitutional law.  I believe our destiny is a shared one, but to achieve our vision, we must transcend history’s claim on the future. By recognizing the limitations of our historical influences, we unleash our full potential for transformation in the world.

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