There is a natural curiosity in most of us to know how things work. There is a joy in having mystery solved and its nature revealed. Figuring out the “why and how of things” is part of the charm of childhood and extends into adulthood. Understanding the clear nature of natural things was a central goal of the Enlightenment. The Encyclopedists made a start on organizing the scientific profession and that’s why they might have enjoyed our current state of knowledge. I’m sure they would have enjoyed the knowledge available at a site like: http://www.howstuffworks.com/. Building on the 17th century revolution science has done a pretty good job of shining some light on natural phenomena. As John Dewey noted “Revelation” is an ongoing process. Scientific advances like Darwinian evolution reveal the world to us. This continues to pull back the curtain on some deep mysteries of how and why things are as they are.
“The question of why anything exists is the most awkward that philosophy can raise- and Revelation alone provides the answer. “— John Dewey
Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature and Other Philosophical Works (1753/4), ed. D. Adams (1999), Section
But when it comes to understanding how our society (and its politics) actually functions may things are unrevealed –economics included. In part this is because the objects of study are subjects themselves and have to participate to help understanding. When the subjects of study are powerful they can make understanding difficult. If they are not interested in understanding as an obvious good then can spin a tale and refuse to open things up. Why should The Prince show how they influence events? This side of Machiavelli it can still be a sensitive and shocking topic. In his blog “PEARL of Great Price: Public Education and Religious Liberty" Edd Doerr (http://secularhumanist.blogspot.co/2011/05/pearl-of-great-price-public-education.html) noted how the non-transparent American Federation of Children (AFC) group works to defund public education and for channeling public funds to sectarian/private schools using vouchers and tuition tax credits. In actually they are one of several fronts for the infamous Koch Brothers as well as the DeVos family (of Amway fame) interests. This is just one of many covert operations that seek a more conservative, religious society.
The workings of business, government and their related doings are also often opaque. Sunlight is not what some in these institutions want across the board. That is why there are now a range of transparency organizations that shed light on dark areas of society. Transparency International, for example, is one civil society organization engaged in the fight against corruption across the globe - http://www.transparency.org/. One tool it uses is a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which was launched in 1995, to put a spotlight on international corruption. The CPI ranks almost 200 countries by their perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys. See http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi
In the US the battle over transparency and the effort to open window into how political things work is heating on around political influence -such things as having companies seeking federal contracts influencing the contract possibilities through political contributions. The Washington Post recently reported that a White House budget official will testify May 12th at a joint congressional hearing to explain a draft proposal to require company disclose of political contributions. Public disclosure of contributions seems reasonable, but apparently 21 House Republican members (including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor & Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy) have a problem. They saw a leaked draft order by President Obama forcing federal contractors to disclose their political donations and quickly signed a letter condemning this form of transparency. Officials have been asked testify at the May 12th hearing which they are calling “Politicizing Procurement: Would President Obama’s Proposal Curb Free Speech and Hurt Small Business?” Perhaps they see it as the administration counter to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision - which freed up endless corporate (yes even foreign) donations to support political campaigns. If so I think an executive order for more sunlight on political and electoral process is timely. Many people feel that democracy has been hijacked by a hybrid of corporate interests, their lobbyists and pliable policymakers/officials. As a result policymaking is driven by whatever vested interests have the best planted operatives and tacit agreements supported by big pocket strategies to manipulate public opinion. What can we do to recover more of a real democracy of free interests? Now is a time to find practical steps to reclaim popular democracy so that it once again centes on what is best for our society in the long term. Well transparency into the way the corporate-lobby-political alliance works is one step. I was actually quite surprised to hear words arguing for such transparency on the PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s South Riding show. South Riding describes England’s 1930 era debates over the need for, and efficacy of, public works. In particular South Riding describes the desperate need for new roads and hospitals, schools and maternity clinics. These became progressive goals and resulting in conflict between old and new, especially between a traditional rural lifestyle built on personal relations, and a new social organization created by bigger government trying to solve problems. But government also brings an impersonal bureaucratic style mixed with more democratic processes. As one character favoring a new approach says of a conservative – “I dislike, I oppose everything he stands for — feudalism, patronage, chivalry, exploitation."
We are beyond the ‘30s memory of feudalism but our economic woes have stirred the political pot anew. In the ‘30s FDR pursued public works programs, but people also called for more government transparency to understand what was happening. This is stirring again.
Transparency then and now seems very American and democratic, since it helps hold lawmakers (and their corporate backers) accountable for their actions. It was important then and necessary now and should be welcomed because transparency comprehensively affects civic life. People are interested in a range of processes from how their money is spent on road to what drives legislative priorities and spending). Transparency combines with other activities like regulation and might help avoiding another round of bank meltdowns. Federally insured institutions should be required to hold more reserves. In general a good citizens needs to be informed in a democracy. For example we could use better transparent into the nature holdings and risky, leveraged dealings.
There have been attempts to legislate this, but there are counter efforts to block such transparency. One might think that attempts to rollback transparency, Freedom of info laws and block greater government transparency should bring progressives & tea party folks together. Indeed there has been some massive citizen backlash following such attempts. Nonetheless, we see powers in the House fighting to keep the campaign donations of federal contractors essentially secrete. Which suggests that we need a sustained effort to keep the degree of transparency we now have and indeed move forward with this as part of a more open and participatory society.
WikiLeaks is one effort to show the way things work. It’s threatening so rather than face an embarrassing after the fact disclosure, government and businesses should be working to balance the transparency and security tradeoff and throw in some development of ethics. One group that is helping move constructively is the Sunlight Foundation.
Early in May the Sunlight Foundation hosted Transparency Camp 2011 (aka Tcamp) http://transparencycamp.org/). This is there annual a two day event overflowing with talented, dedicated people discussing how to improve transparency throughout society using open data, better technology, and providing more access to information. Discussions of how to donations more transparent was just one aspect of Tcamp discussion. Efforts on a more participatory democracy include improving neighborhood information. White house Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Andrew McLaughlin discussed civic commons and Code for America - a platform for cities, working with tech companies to solve common problems (http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/09/civic-commons-code-sharing-ini.html). Many sites providing useful information on government and corporate operations were discussed for example opencongress.org, Participarorypolitics.org & http://www.muckrock.com/. Other people discussed how understanding is enhanced by visualization in a post-Google maps era. With simple tools using open source technology one can take openly published data and visualize it on a map using. Mapping data helps tell a story story about what is going on. A simple example was the Department of Education mapped broadband internet speeds over school districts throughout the country. Other examples of explanatory maps made with simple tools, include the Chicago Tribune’s map of mayoral election results, a map of seismic activity after the Japan earthquake, and the ‘I Heart NPR’ Facebook app.