THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 


  MANHATTAN CHRONICLES OPINION

  by ALEXANDRA ARES    
  Issue: Summer 2010
  Published: 23 August, 2010
An ARGUMENT for TOUCH-TONE GOVERNANCE


Wouldn’t it be nice to have a touch-tone application on our computer screen for voting for or against all the local, state and federal matters that affect us? Stuff like real estate taxes or other taxes, how our tax money is being used, disadvantaged kids, street clean-up, wine in the supermarkets, signal in the subway, war and peace or the latest debate on the Ground Zero mosque? 

I was very, very excited and happy to become a US citizen years ago. I was under the impression that once a citizen my voice was going to matter. I was under the impression that once a citizen I would be part of a wave that leads somewhere, a wave that would shape me and allow me in turn to shape it. Until the big day. I recall there was a lovely, black officer lady behind a counter who looked at me skeptically and poured cold water on my enthusiasm: “Nothing will change, honey.” 

Years ago I had a strong civic conscience. I worked in news, as a news producer, commentator and foreign correspondent. I was a news junkie. Not anymore. I’ve stopped voting after Hillary Clinton, whom I trusted, voted to authorize the war in Iraq despite massive public protests on the streets of Manhattan. Forget about me as an individual, but how can one have any faith when even the largest public opinion protest in the history of the island won’t matter?  Since then, I haven’t voted for President, for the New York State Legislature or for NYC Legislators.

Every so often I receive nice envelopes with news updates from my representatives about what was voted and decided. I never open any of these newsletters and I just hurry to trash them. Why? Because as a citizen I am never consulted and informed in advance about anything. Voting for any official has become like wooing a woman to marry you for four years, and then disappearing completely, breaking all promises and ignoring her views, feelings and presence – discarding any possible two-way friendship - completely. 

I came to the U.S. as a Republican and admirer of Ronald Reagan, who seemed so cool from behind the Eastern European Iron-y curtain. Once here, I’ve learned the other side of the story and thought for a while that Democrats were the answer; and although I didn't vote in the last Presidential elections, I shared the general enthusiasm and allowed myself to trust that change was maybe possible. I since realized that Congress and the lack of ‘touch-tone governance’ are crippling everything and will cripple any future presidents, senators or elected officials. There’s a huge quantity of brain power and good ideas in this country that are daily ignored. 

In 13 years in New York, I wasn’t polled or consulted once for a political, civic or administrative decision. This is worse than living in a Third World Country where some NGO or UN initiative would always consult with stakeholders before drafting and implementing new projects.  Only special interest groups and hired lobbyists seem to be able to influence the public agenda. Definitely not people like you and I…In a way, there’s a return to 19th and 20th century style politics when only a priviledeged group could vote and influence the public debate.  The Congress has a minuscul, minority-like approval rating, hovering in the low 20s percentile, and you really have to wonder who those 20% really are. It’s alarming for a legislature with such a drastically low legitimacy to steer my life, and all the 300 million lives here, and to influence billions of other people around the world. Who is supposed to run the show? And how?

Then what can be done? Nobody knows. Fire Congress, or at least one house, and re-write the Constitution? This is never going to happen. Then what?  Everybody I know asks themselves the same question but nobody knows the answer.

So why would I care and why would I bother to vote? Like me are scores of estranged citizens. There are so many things that I disagree with, both large and small, that I don’t even know where to start. I am sure we all have a secret wish list, and here is mine.   

The big picture: I am against the U.S. being so blatantly in the business of selling and delivering wars every few years. I don’t even need to open Time or Newsweek or turn on the TV to know that a new war is being prepared, hyped and sold as I am breathing, to replace the decade-long wars already going on, which at one point will have to end. Pundits and officials will present that it was, is or will be needed and make up false evidence, create unnecessary urgency, distort the truth and mislead us all, so a few can pocket the payments of our astronomical military bills. Perhaps the defense industry stockholders, and their friends, relatives, lobbyists and employees are the 20% who still grant the Congress some credibility.

The out of control prices for healthcare and education are another big issue of discontent for many, and the recent reforms are just a drop in the ocean of complexities that need to be addressed, uprooted, streamlined or fundamentally transformed.  And while I’m a leftie with a strong libertarian Ayn Rand leaning, I also think that taxes are way too high for what they offer each American ---  Yes, in many European countries the taxes are higher by a certain percentage, but the range of public services offered for the tax money is much bigger than that percentage gap. Republicans keep talking about cutting taxes, and when they propose that, they never talk about the percentage that goes to the supersized Military. But nobody, Republican or Democrat, talks seriously about shifting where that tax money goes. Why not cut in half the huge percentage currently wasted on all the colossal military expenditures? Did you know that the U.S. defense budget is, at a time of international world peace, and in the absence of a World War, equal to the sum of all the defense budgets of all 192 UN represented countries combined?  Why not redirect half of this money for things needed by civilians on the national soil, as the UK, Germany, France and Japan do, so their people can enjoy a better quality of living? World War II ended 60 years ago everywhere in the world, except where much of our tax money goes. New costly wars are being artificially spurred, so the percentage for defense tax dollars can stay pretty much the same.

There are also plenty of smaller things that I find silly. I am against youth not being allowed to drink alcohol until they’re 21. I was first served wine by my parents when I was 14 in Europe and nobody made a big deal of drinking, binge drinking, etc. I mean, is driving a car or getting married before 21 less risky than sipping a glass of wine? Isn’t it hilarious that most boys start having sex at 13-14, but they have to wait 8 more years to legally drink a beer? I also don’t understand why, in New York, we can’t buy wine or alcohol in the supermarket as one can do in California and many other states or in Europe. Why is this such a big deal?  Who decided that for me? And again why haven’t I been consulted?

Why is there no phone reception in the subway so that I can read my emails or send a text in case of an emergency?  Or why are dance licenses so expensive that we’ve been witnessing the death of the small night club or restaurant with a dance floor? Why is everybody complaining that parts of Manhattan are boring, including the Upper East Side, but there is no effort or vision or strategy to address this?    

I am not alone. Thousands, if not millions, in fact the majority of New Yorkers, think like me. I actually never met anybody in New York who disagreed on these things - oh, well, nobody short of a  few charming Park Avenue special interests defense lobbyists. Just read the Huffington Post and the blogs and the commentaries left by readers as footnotes for the major newspapers – often much more courageous and interesting and insightful than the predictable newspaper prose.

The day my opinion will be polled, consulted and taken seriously, I am going to vote again. It will then be more productive,  as nobody will waste time anymore going on rallies, and it will take the pulse of people's opinions on specific issues more accurately.  People would feel more involved, more respected. More relevant and less disconnected. It will save everyone's time. Democracy will return to the people. Today it is technologically possible. I am well informed, and I can Google all the pros and cons. Until the touch-tone governance button will be installed on my laptop, the newsletters from my legislature will keep going to the trash bin. I’d like to find a way to tell them to stop killing trees for nothing, and do the clean, electronic, two-way messaging.
 
Feel free to send  me your wish-list about how we can improve Manhattan and fix Congress