Big Data’s Potential to Foster Transparency and Accountability in Government

Transparency

Transparency is one of the bedrock principles of democracy, as TDV has written. In government of, by and for the people we, as citizens, have a right to know.

Unfortunately, transparency, though a worthy political goal, is often illusive. This is especially true in these days of extreme political dysfunction.

Donald Trump refuses to make his tax returns public, or disclose the names of visitors to the White House. Are we surprised? No. Those damned Democrats would use the information against him!

And that is exactly the point: the taxes and work related actions of government officials, elected and appointed, should be able to withstand public scrutiny. If those officials, including Donald Trump, cannot be transparent, they should be disqualified from serving.

But the issue of transparency is bigger than just Donald Trump. Government agencies are not transparent often because full and complete disclosure can hurt some people, or make others look bad. If the aggrieved person happens to be, say, a senior member of Congress who serves on an appropriations committee, well, maybe your funding won’t be there next year.

For its part, TDV frequently mines government data. The good news is a lot of the data already exists. The bad news is the data is often so fragmented across multiple agencies, in many different formats, that it is often difficult if not impossible to make sense of it in a comprehensive way.

Enter Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Someone with a net worth of more than $20 billion. As reported in the New York Times, Ballmer is funding a non-profit, “USAFacts.org”, which collects government data from multiple sources and puts that data on the internet in an accessible and consistent format. A beta version, available to the public, was launched this past Tuesday (April 18).

And, oh by the way, those tax breaks for the rich we talked about? According to USAFacts.org, middle income taxpayers earning between $31,000 and $61,000 receive tax breaks averaging about $2,400 per filer (individual or household).

Meanwhile, the top 1%, earning more than $711,000 per year, get tax breaks averaging about $48,000 per year, which is more than the total most average taxpayers earn.

Good to know – we are finally getting a platform that makes government data available in an accessible format – and it has the potential to reveal some areas in need of reform – like excessive tax breaks for the wealthy.

Thank you Steve Ballmer for helping strengthen our democracy.

Wall Street Journal Arrogance on Full Display for Pope’s Visit

As Pope Francis begins his visit to the U.S., it is little sad to read the Wall Street Journal editorial page as it wags its finger at the Pope for being embraced by “a contemporary progressive political agenda” which the paper describes as “income redistribution” and “government economic control to reduce climate change.”

Sadder still perhaps that WSJ would stoop to speaking for Catholics while lecturing the Pope on the proper scope of this authority:

“Catholics understand that while the pope speaks for God on matters of faith and morals, his infallibility does not extend to economics or environmentalism. “

Just for the record WSJ:

  • Progressive taxation and income redistribution are not the same thing (see TDV blog, “Democrats Needs to Stand-Up to Special Interests and Reform Regressive Tax Policies”).
  • Reasonable standards on fuel emissions and incentives to reduce pollution are not synonymous with “government economic control to reduce climate change”
  • In the future, you may want to refrain from telling “Catholics” what they understand or don’t understand (unless you are purposefully trying to insult to millions of people)
  • We, as citizens , have a duty to consider the moral implications of government policy (see TDV blog, “Bernie Sanders and the Moral Imperative to Act”), and the Pope is right and courageous to speak out

Kudos to the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Your amoral elitist arrogance is on full display for the Pope’s visit.

Donald Trump and the Sad State of American Journalism

Today’s news media seem to exhibit three main qualities:

  • Pandering – Telling people what they want to hear; never offending anyone, no matter the issue, ala the major news networks including PBS
  • Repetition – Repeating the same thing over and over ad nauseum, ala CNN
  • Rudeness – Shoutfests masquerading as dialogue, ala almost every cable news outlet

It is any wonder Donald Trump appears to exhibit these same qualities. His obvious strategy is to pander to the media which in turn gains him free publicity and allows him to rise in the polls.

Jorge Ramos of Univision wasn’t willing to play Trump’s little game Tuesday in Iowa. He dared to stand up and pointedly ask Trump to defend his positions on immigration. For his efforts, Ramos was removed from the press conference and, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out in an excellent article at The Intercept yesterday, was skewered by fellow journalists for being opinionated in his approach and aggressive in his questioning.

In his article, Greenwald labeled the phenomenon of journalists refusing to take a stand on major issues as part of the “Corporatization of American Journalism”.

Greenwald is putting a pretty fine point on the subject – maybe too fine in TDV’s view.   A once noble profession seems to have morphed into an arm of a pandering, repetitious and rude media establishment, with very little self-awareness that a problem even exists.

Kudos to Ramos and Greenwald for refusing to be part of the “Stupidification” of American Journalism.