Moving Toward a Metro-Regional Approach to Planning and Advocacy

This article was originally published on Gotham Gazette on December 8, 2018

New York City and its neighbors have a problem. Unlike Los Angeles, Chicago, and the other major U.S. metropolitan areas that fit neatly within the standard city, county, and state political boundaries, our metropolitan area of over 22 million people does not. We’re spread out over four states and 26 counties, five of which are called “boroughs” and were integrated together to create our city over 100 years ago.

All these complex boundaries and jurisdictions have resulted in a metropolitan area that has been “divided and conquered” by the politics of patronage, enabling networks of political insiders and special interest groups to dominate New York City’s electorate, advancing their own interests at the expense of ours. This has resulted in our area’s city and state governments passing higher taxes and providing lower quality services, more corruption, and less infrastructure investment than comparable cities and regions around the world.

We deserve better.

People living in the New York Metropolitan Area (NYMETA) might live over 100 miles apart, but we still work at the same jobs and in the same industries, go to many of the same universities and hospitals, and root for (or at least have strong opinions about) the same sports teams. We often travel the same roads, ride the same train lines, use the same airports, drink from some of the same aquifers, eat the same foods, and get rained on from the same clouds.

With so much shared environment and infrastructure, you’d think that there would be powerful entities helping us align our shared interests, coordinate our actions, and deliver us results at a regional scale. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening.

There is no single entity or group responsible for systematic coordination within our metropolitan area. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of coordinating bodies spanning different sectors, areas and functions. Sometimes those bodies are prestigious nonprofit entities with relatively meager budgets like the Regional Planning Association, other times they’re multi-state authorities with huge budgets run by political elites like the Port Authority, and often it’s informal coordinating bodies that do little more than network individuals and hold annual meetings, and most commonly, there is just no coordination taking place at all.

What types of opportunities could a better coordinated region be generating? Here are some examples.

We’re experiencing a housing crunch in New York City, and there are a myriad of housing development opportunities in the Hudson River Valley and tons of New Yorkers who’d happily commute from a high rise in Poughkeepsie to a job in Midtown Manhattan if the commute could be done in under two hours and for a reasonable price. A coordinating body — let’s call it NYMETA — would be responsible for bringing all the players together: Metro North Railroad, town governments, real estate developers, and New York City to streamline regulatory processes, align incentives, and get deals made and buildings built.

Another example: New York City schools are feeding over a million kids a day, our regions small farms are looking for reliable consumers of their products, and the school system is looking for locally sourced healthy food, but their corporate contractors are trucking in frozen produce from hundreds of miles away. The city is also building programs that expose youth to nature, rural communities, and agricultural-based industries. NYMETA could work with rural counties to help them aggregate and organize food supply, and work with New York City to aggregate and organize school demand, and then build the relationships needed to get our kids eating healthy local food and empowering our regional farmers at the same time.

Beyond managing classic coordination challenges like road and rail linkages, we also need an entity that can represent our region on the national and global stages, where major cities and their regions are playing an increasingly important role in global affairs. Many leaders, including major CEOs, politicians, philanthropists, philosophers, and futurists have predicted that, over the course of the 21st century, nation-states will cede more and more political power to cities and metro-regional governments, and those governments will network together to coordinate policies at global scale.

Evidence of the rise this “municipalist” power structure is everywhere, from the United Nations HABITAT conference that brought cities together through the U.N. structure for the very first time in 2016, to various networks of city governments like the League of Cities and Networks of Cities, and through outcomes like the C40 process to tackle global warming. Places like Paris and Los Angeles have, through the luck of sensible political boundaries, entities that can, to some extent, represent their metro region at these events. NYMETA could perform this function for us, enabling our region to leverage our massive population and other resources when negotiating agreements and deals with other major global regions, not to mention what could be done within the U.S.

An important step towards any political organizing project is collecting and displaying the most basic information about geography and demographics. Who would fall within a metro regional government? What would its boundaries be? The new Metro Region Explorer website from New York City’s premier digital service organization, NYC Planning Labs, answers these questions with an open source software tool that mashes a bunch of datasets about our metro region together to provide data-driven stories about demographics, employment, housing, and other baseline statistics needed to understand our region.

Unlike many GIS tools with lots of confusing check boxes that you need to click off and on to get useful information, Metro Region Explorer does the work for you by giving you some stories you can toggle through and menu items that reveal the most important data. Click around the site and insights will likely pop into your head as they did mine: New Jersey is building tons of housing while western Nassau and eastern Westchester counties aren’t. Lots of jobs are moving out of Connecticut and into New York City and Long Island. Central Jersey has a huge immigrant population. Wow.

tristate map

Metro Explorer isn’t just a cool mapping tool for planning nerds. As Gotham Gazette reported in its article “With New Data, City Takes First Step Toward Regional Planning,” its development indicates that the city is getting serious about improving our region’s capacity to understand itself and coordinate between and among jurisdictions.

As the largest government with the most capacity in the region, it’s up to New York City to begin the process of developing a more integrated regional coordinating body. But building a dedicated office to do this work is not enough. We need an entity accountable to the 22 million people, 900 municipalities, and 26 counties of NYMETA. Developing such an entity will produce tangible benefits in the short term and create a whole new set of opportunities over the long term.

It’s time to start envisioning NYMETA.

Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Photo: NYC City Planning

Making the Libertarian Party Viable in New York City

This article originally appeared on Gotham Gazette on June 29th, 2018.

New Yorkers are constantly complaining about the two-party political system. Democratic domination of New York City politics means Democratic primary elections are more impactful than general elections. Republican domination of the national political system means New Yorkers’ progressive cultural values are rarely reflected in national politics. At the state level, Democrats and Republicans seem to have a stable alliance built on maintaining one of the most corrupt state governments in the country.

Clearly the two largest political parties aren’t working for us, so what about the third: the Libertarian Party, which is has over 500,000 members nationwide? The Libertarian Party is more than twice the size of the fourth largest party, the Green Party, and more than 10 times the size the Democratic Socialists of America. Around 20% of Americans self-identify as “libertarian.”

The strength of the National Libertarian Party and the popularity of libertarian sentiment is not reflected in New York politics, where the Libertarian Party has failed to achieve official party status, which requires getting 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate. While it’s likely that Larry Sharpe’s gubernatorial campaign will earn the New York Libertarian Party official status this election cycle, the size of party in New York City will still be miniscule, at around 100 dues-paying members (which is approximately .01 percent of self-identified libertarians).

The lack of Libertarians in New York City presents New Yorkers with a massive opportunity: to build a new local political party that can have instant national reach, national operational infrastructure, and a rapidly growing base of support in increasingly relevant western battleground states. This party wouldn’t and shouldn’t look like Libertarian parties in suburban and rural communities but something new: culturally progressive with a can-do, data-driven, startup-style, open-source attitude towards solving our city’s biggest problems. If the rural Libertarians think we’re not “real” Libertarians, then they can move to New York City and defeat us in county elections.

I don’t say this as an outsider, but as the chair of the Brooklyn Libertarian Party and the 2017 Libertarian candidate for New York City Public Advocate who earned more votes than any other Libertarian candidate in that city election cycle.

My plan for a relevant Libertarian Party in New York City rests on three concepts: social tolerance, open and participatory governance, and municipalism.

Each of these concepts is consistent with National Libertarian Party ideology and with the interests of urban voters. If we can fuse the two together, we can create a new political coalition to challenge the authoritarianism coming out of Washington, D.C. and the corruption pervading our two party system.

Social Tolerance
Many people think that libertarian culture and big city culture are at odds because libertarianism is so often framed as a philosophy rooted in rugged self-reliance and individual autonomy, but that’s mostly myth. In reality, libertarians are much more interested in well-functioning markets and how complex, interdependent systems produce so much abundance. If you don’t believe me, read “I, Pencil.”

New Yorkers know better than anyone that people can successfully organize themselves through market activity because that’s how our lives are possible. We rely on complex systems for everything: food, water, transit, employment. Yes, that means we also rely on government-produced systems, and that’s fine because the “big city libertarianism” I’m arguing for respects regional autonomy. More on that later.

The single, unifying, core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the non-aggression principle. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” New Yorkers embody this spirit more than any other place I’ve been in America. We love diversity and it’s myriad of benefits. We also can tolerate crowded, sweaty trains filled with strangers from all over world, and we’re constantly teaching visitors and new residents to do the same. That’s what becoming a New Yorker is all about: learning tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, et al, — because if we don’t have it our cities simply couldn’t function.

Everyone is tolerant when it’s popular, but people are surprised to learn that, at a national level, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female presidential candidate in the 1970s, supporting gay rights in the 1980s, leading the fight against the drug war and mass incarceration in the 1990s, and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000s, Obama’s drone wars in the 2010s, and Trump immigration policies today. The New York City Libertarians can and should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet — a powerful solution: ending the drug war.

Open and Participatory Governance
Our political and governmental operating systems are outdated, and need to be redeveloped for the era of the internet. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are too invested in the old system to be able to produce any substantial reforms. If we look around globally, we’ll find that some of the most aggressive and successful reforms came from the Occupy-style movements that spread throughout the world around 2010-2014. While Occupy was framed as a leftist movement in the United States, in other places it was much more obviously an anti-corruption movement that used anarchist organizing principles. In many places alumni of these movements have taken power.

Examples include Madrid, where movement activists won elections and embedded themselves in the city government and implemented an ambitious e-governance system that enables the public to control the legislature through a direct-democracy style app. Another example is in Taiwan, where activists took over the national parliament for a month during the “Sunflower” movement, won concessions from the government, and have implemented a nationwide participatory democracy program that is the envy of the world.

What these movements have shown is that there are solutions to the question of democracy: but those solutions will destroy the politics of patronage, where politicians acquire resources from taxpayers and distribute them to their constituents, and instead require a politics of participation, where politicians use technology to convene stakeholders, determine public sentiment and then perform the will of the people, even if that means suppressing their own opinions and interests. That’s a different job description for which many existing politicians would not apply.

The other major trend in internet-enabled government is the spread of “digital services organizations” and their uniquely effective method of bureaucracy reform. By using open source technologies, lean development principles, service design methodologies and other “startup-style” tools, DSOs are implementing technical systems that will, ultimately, radically transform how government is administered: reduce the need for certain types of skill sets, automating processes and making services faster, better, and cheaper.

The political establishment and agency bureaucracies have been extremely hesitant to resource these DSOs because their work is shifting power from closed bureaucracies to open systems. As such, neither establishment party can give DSOs the support they deserve. But Libertarians can! We want government to operate faster, better and cheaper — and if that means government workers lose their jobs in the process, that’s fine. Give them a universal basic income and let’s move on.

balkin libertarian

With Trump as president, many city residents have awoken to the fact that there are many layers of government — and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other. They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and municipal governments have a lot more. This “municipalism” is entirely consistent with libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.

By advocating at the national level for more local control, we align ourselves with a political program that spans the nation: urban and rural, progressive and conservative. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the federal government to state and local governments.

I call this “flipping the pyramid.”

Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states, and lastly municipalities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receives the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more.

In circumstances where rural and suburban communities don’t want or need big local governments, they will pay significantly lower taxes. Meanwhile, people in cities who do want lots of government services can increase their local taxes to pay for those services, without increasing the total amount of taxes they pay. Don’t want to pay taxes? Leave the city! This act of voting with one’s feet is the oldest type of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced (and maybe even subsidized).

We’ve seen what happens when we try a “one-size-fits all” model of federal policy: Washington, D.C. has been gridlocked for over a decade, the culture war is nastier than ever, Donald Trump is president, and it seems only the mega-rich are getting what they want from the political process. Instead, let’s allow for the “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate.

Maybe some cities will become hotbeds of socialist policy, and some rural communities will devolve into total anarchy. While that might sound drastic or raise the spectre of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to our current political climate and (c) this approach will encourage and incentivize politically-minded people to shift their attention from the national political circus and get involved in local and state politics.

I am not advocating for the federal government to stop performing any of its constitutionally mandated or critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of U.S. citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief, and organizing national defense.

Rather, I’m advocating for a visioning process where we redraw the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state, and federal powers.

While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local, state, and regional governments so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities. Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt as national politics, if not more so. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to lead. We can have that battle on our home turf instead of D.C.

New Yorkers, and urban residents throughout the country, deserve a culturally progressive, entrepreneur-friendly, open-source political party, and the Libertarian Party can be just that. There are no Libertarians in New York City interested in stopping us. I’m the chair of the Brooklyn Party, we’re collaborating actively with the Manhattan Party, and this weekend we’ll be taking our plan to the Libertarian National Convention in New Orleans to find allies and develop a more nuanced understanding of potential opposition to our plans.

In politics, opportunities can come from where you least expect them: maybe that’s the Libertarian Party in America’s big cities. Come find out by attending our monthly meeting in Brooklyn and the meetings of other chapters around the city.

Devin Balkind is the chair of the Brooklyn Libertarian Party. He was the 2017 Libertarian candidate for Public Advocate. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office

As City and State Politics Fail Us, Time to Rethink New York Metropolitan Area

This article originally appeared on Gotham Gazette on September 25, 2018

New York City is the world’s most popular city. We do lots of things exceptionally well here. But one thing we don’t do well is democracy. Voting rates within New York City are at historic lows, and corruption in Albany is at historic highs. Our politics is, in a word, an embarrassment.

But it’s not New Yorkers’ fault.

One of the oldest rules in politics is “divide and conquer,” and anyone who looks at a map of New York City and its metropolitan area, and compares it to a similarly scoped map of other big American cities, will see that we have been divided and conquered by our political boundaries. I’m not talking about gerrymandered districts, which are some of the most obscene in the nation, but something even more fundamental: the borders of our counties and our states.

The United States system of government is designed to operate with four layers: federal, state, county, and locality (city/town/village). This system works relatively well for most cities. Los Angeles, as a city, sits entirely within Los Angeles county, and it’s metropolitan area of 18 million people sits entirely within 4 counties, all of which are located in California. Chicago, as a city, like L.A., sits entirely within a single county: Cook County. It’s metro area of 10 million people inhabit 13 counties that extend into Indiana and Wisconsin, with the amount of “out of state” residents of “Chicagoland” numbering under a million in each state.

New York City simply doesn’t fit the U.S. model. Our city of over 8 million people is one of the only ones in the U.S. to extend beyond a single county: we have five. We call them boroughs here because…history. And each one has government appendages from a less integrated past: presidents, public administrators, courts, sheriffs, district attorneys, museums, and libraries. These institutions all cost taxpayer money to operate, and their opaque nature outside the normal purview of a city government makes them a great place for corruption to emerge. For example, longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hines was a master of using county level institutions to steal public money and punish opponents.

Zooming out to our metropolitan area (aka the “tri-state area,” “NYMetA,” etc.) and things get even more messy: a population of 23 million people spread over 25 counties and four states, with over 12 million living outside New York City and over 4 million living outside New York State. This creates lots of problems: people earning money in New York City and New York State can easily escape its taxes. It makes coordinating regional level solutions to housing and transit much more difficult. It means the municipalities and counties in our metro region can’t build the political clout needed to get things done at the state level because so many of us live in different states!

And what are the results? Our metro region’s tax dollars fund massive corruption. New York is, by some counts, the most corrupt state in the country. We also have the largest amount of debt per resident. New Jersey isn’t far behind when it comes to corruption or debt. Connecticut is, in the words of The Daily Beast, “collapsing.”

Many people blame badly drawn borders for the continued persistence of corrupt, authoritarian governments in the Middle East. (Tragically, misguided U.S. foreign policy hasn’t helped.) We can and should blame outdated political borders for our failing state and local politics here as well.

While that might seem depressing, it’s worth reminding that, over time, borders change, and so does their importance. New trade agreements, political institutions, forms of transit, financial systems, and political alliances have shifted the meaning of borders throughout history. We’re not stuck — but we do need to think outside our borders and build institutions that reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of regional collaboration. This type of activity is more important than ever because many policy-makers, business leaders, and futurists are predicting that, during the 21st century, networks of cities — not nation-states — will become the primary entities coordinating global political and economic activities. Some people are calling this new political philosophy “municipalism.”

If New Yorkers want to benefit from these new geopolitical trends, we need to build regional, democratic institutions that can represent the interests of all the residents of our metropolitan area.

Yes, we have the Regional Planning Association, the Port Authority, and dozens of other “regional” coordinating entities, but none of them have democratic representation of the public as their core mission: and that’s precisely what we need.

There are many questions to answer: who would New York Metropolitan Area (NYMetA) represent, and how does that representation work? Where and how could it derive economic, cultural, and political legitimacy? Where does it fit in a nation of towns, counties, and states? Could it become its own government layer with its own tax base? Or maybe it could live within civil society: as a political party, a social movement, or maybe a cooperatively run government public policy think tank?

While the idea of a legitimate NYMetA government might seem ridiculous and way off in the distance, the mere idea can be used to challenge the political status quo, which has fortified itself within the existing political borders and relies on our lack of political imagination to retain power.

Discussing and developing a plan for NYMetA enables us to imagine ways outside our antiquated political system that can’t seem to perform simple tasks like keeping the trains running, much less have them running on time.

If New York can’t do it, NYMetA can!

Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Photo: Department of City Planning

Debrief: My 2017 Campaign for NYC Public Advocate

Every vote has been counted, and 74% of NYC voters want Democrat Letitia James to continue as Public Advocate. I congratulated her on her success and will happily work with her to make NYC’s government more open, transparent and participatory. I hope she’ll take me up on my offer.

Those experienced in third-party NYC politics say our campaign did pretty darn well. We got more votes than the other Libertarian candidates – which technically makes me the most popular candidate (most votes) from the nation’s third political party (Libertarian) in the nation’s largest city (NYC)!  🙂

In earnest, my campaign was always about getting important ideas out there: open source, participatory democracy, “Big City Libertarianism,” faster/better/cheaper city government, the need for a 211 system, transparent capital budgets, and more. We definitely did that by reaching well over 100,000 people between our op-eds, videos, podcasts, social media posts, and ads.

While my 2017 campaign for Public Advocate is now over, my efforts to improve NYC are just beginning. Here’s what’s next for me:

  • Continue developing many open source software resources and encourage their usage by politicians, journalists and everyday New Yorkers;
  • Become a consistent contributor to publications and independent media who explains how technologies can be used to reform government and make it more open, inclusive and participatory;
  • Take a more active role within the NYC-based Libertarian Party so that it becomes a more operationally effective organization and more competitive in local, state and national politics;
  • Expand-upon and spread the ideas of “Big City Libertarianism” to other cities around the country.

I’ve created a presentation, originally for the Open Camps conference, that explains my campaign’s goals and achievements.

I’ve also create a list of media appearances and other campaign outcomes below:

Video Broadcasts


Our Web Apps

Our campaign has always been about “results, not rhetoric.” Over the next weeks, months and years, we’ll continue producing results that make New York City more open, accessible and participatory. We don’t need to wait for permission to do this work. We’ll just do it.

We’ll keep you updated on our progress via this website and our Facebook page.

Thank you for your attention and support. More to come.

“Big City” Libertarianism

The Libertarian Party (LP) is the third largest political party in the United States, with a membership that’s twice as large as the Green Party and twenty times as large as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Unlike the Greens and DSA, which draw a significant support from urban areas, the LP is significantly more popular in suburban and rural areas. Some believe this distribution of support is inevitable, as city residents rely on government more than rural their counterparts—but, it isn’t. The Libertarian party can reframe its values for urban populations, and develop an urban agenda rooted in social tolerance, good governance and urban empowerment. This will allow it to emerge as the most viable alternative to the two-party duopoly gripping municipal, urban politics around the country today.

Social Tolerance

Many people think that libertarian culture and the culture of our nation’s biggest cities are at odds because libertarianism is so often framed as a philosophy rooted in “rugged self-reliance” and urbanites are anything but “self-reliant” since they rely on large-scale, networked, complex supply chains to sustain themselves. In reality, libertarian philosophy is much more focused on people’s ability to self-organize  complex systems to meet their own needs through the “market” than it is on the notions of “self-sufficiency”. The same market forces that libertarians are so interested in understanding and utilizing are also the forces that make modern, urban life possible. As such, “Big City” Libertarianism should sideline aesthetics and notions of self-reliance and instead focus on how market forces and technological innovation can be best utilized to benefit all city residents.

Libertarians also need to interpret urban experiences from a libertarian lens to show urban residents that they share have libertarian tendencies and values. The core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the “non-aggression principle”. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” Residents of big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami know that if their neighbors didn’t have tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, etc, their cities simply couldn’t function. While Democrats attempt to talk the talk of “social progressivism”, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female Vice-Presidential candidate in the 1970s, supporting gay rights in the 1980, fighting to end the drug war in the 1990s and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000s. Big City Libertarians should highlight the progressive history of the Libertarian Party and not be afraid to denounce regressive cultural elements in the party’s past and present.

To win hearts and minds in our nation’s cities, Big City Libertarians should focus their energies on issues where urban “progressives” are more aligned with the Libertarian Party than they are the Democratic Party. The “Drug War” and the resulting mass incarceration and police militarization it has spawned presents such an opportunity.

The drug war has fallen out of favor among intelligentsia concerned with public health because of an increasingly broad body of research showing that the Portuguese and Northern European approach of decriminalization and risk reduction is producing superior outcomes in every way: less drug use, less crime and less healthcare costs. The drug war is also falling out of favor among the young and “social justice progressives” because they recognize it as a method of social control – oppressing the most vulnerable and marginalized populations throughout the US. The numbers are staggering: black men are incarcerated at rates over 5x that of whites, even though they use drugs in comparable quantities. While many Democrats now support some type of marijuana decriminalization, almost all still support the drug war’s prohibitionist approach to “controlled substances.” Big City Libertarians should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet — a powerful solution: Ending the Drug War.

Good Governance

New York City, like many large cities throughout the US, is dominated by the Democratic Party. That means political bosses and party elite pick our politicians, and voters have little power to challenge the status quo. That’s one reason why NYC’s voter participation rate in local elections is under 25%. New Yorkers want more political options, but they certainly aren’t coming from the Republicans who maintains a hierarchical party infrastructure that benefits from maintaining the status quo. Many politically active urban residents have invested significant time in the project of reforming the Democratic Party, but their success has been minimal and frustration is high. Big City Libertarians should present themselves as the anti-corruption, good-government party.

By organizing local Libertarian Party chapters around values of openness, transparency, participatory governance, and by utilizing appropriate technologies to run themselves faster, better and cheaper than the competition, local LP chapters can become more effective effective political operations while also training their members in the same type of technology-enabled reform that we can pitch to voters as a solution to corrupt local politicians and lethargic, bloated bureaucracies.

Urban Empowerment

With Trump as president, many city residents have awoke to the fact that there are many layers of government – and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other. They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and municipal governments have a lot more. This emerging “municipalism” is entirely consistent with libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.

By advocating at the national level for more local control of tax revenue, Libertarians can be inclusive of their rural and suburban bases, while maintaining a flexibility that allows them to advance in urban politics. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the Federal government to state and local government.

Let’s call this “flipping the pyramid.”

Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states and lastly cities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receive the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more. Now, many rural and suburban localities don’t want or need big local governments, and voters in those places can direct their governments not to raise taxes – leaving them with a significantly lower tax burden than city residents.

For example, a New York City resident who currently pays 20% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 5% to local government (for a total of 35%), would instead give 5% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 20% to the city (total remains 35%). This restructuring would allow New Yorkers to achieve more local control, sustain or even increase the level of services they receive, while still paying the same total amount in taxes. Meanwhile, a resident of Grafton, New Hampshire, who is currently paying 20% to the Feds, 7.5% to the State and 2.5% to their county (30% total) could then be paying 5% to the federal government, 5% to the state and 5% locally (15% total) – resulting in a massive tax break for them. So, for the New York City resident, the Libertarian plan might not lead to a tax decrease, but instead lead to a drastically better funded city government, while to the rural Grafton resident, the Libertarian plan does lead to a massive tax break. Big City Libertarians and small-government Libertarians can collaborate deeply on “flipping the pyramid” at the national level, and then both achieve their separate goals at the local level in their own communities.

The “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate is something we should all embrace. Instead of imposing our ideals on everyone in the country through the federal government, we should view people’s residency as a political choice. If people chose to live in a city or state with high taxes, they’re voluntarily accepting the high taxes. If they don’t want to pay those taxes, then they can move to a place with lower ones. This act of voting with one’s feet is the oldest manifestation of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced, encouraged, supported and maybe even subsidized.

While that might sound drastic or raise the specter of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, and (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to over a decade of Congressional gridlock and a vicious culture war that put a reality-TV show host into the presidency.

This doesn’t mean that the federal government should stop performing critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of US citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief and more. Rather, it means that the we must begin in earnest a visioning process that redraws the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state and federal powers. While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local layers of government so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities and effectively allocate more resources. Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt, and even more so, than national politics. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to join and lead.

With over 135 million Americans living in metropolitan areas of over a million people, the Libertarian Party has everything to gain by creating a space for “Big City” Libertarianism to flourish.

Why I Didn’t Participate in “Occupy vs. Tea Party”

I was initially very excited to participate in “Occupy vs. Tea Party” because I viewed it as a platform to bring the two political movements together through dialogue.  The confrontational framing of the “debate” seemed like an obstacle that could be overcome by focusing on problems upon which both “sides” seem to agree: the central banking cartel, the destruction of civil liberties, the disempowerment of the general public, etc.

The first indication that this would be a misadventure was the so called “tea partiers” that were selected to participate.  As one liberty blogger noted “this should be called ‘Occupy vs. NeoCons”.  While one or two of the so called “tea partiers” are liberty-oriented activists, most of them seem to be 2nd wave Tea Party who are more aligned with neocon ideology than the liberty ideology upon which the Tea Party was founded.  One particularly unpleasant participant is a racist shock-jock whose built a career by spreading fear of Islam.  I attempted to bring a liberty-focused tea party organizer onto the show and he was given the run around and then rejected.

The second indication that this would be a misadventure was that Gordon, the show’s producer, gave us no information about his intentions.  Despite a brief phone call, I had no information about the show: no idea what the format was, how the video would be distributed, whether we were receiving any compensation (or free tickets) or if we had rights to footage.  No doubt it was a sloppy operation.  Then, four days before “Occupy vs. Tea Party” was supposed to take place and after numerous attempts to contact Gordon, the Occupy team received an email with the format of the show.  The so-called “debate” would involve each team voting its own members out of the debate.  This extra dimension turned what could have been a fruitful debate into a circus, and that was the idea.  Gordon suggested we “roll with” the other surprises he had in store for us.  I’m not interested in being involved in a circus-style reality show.  If I were, I’d make sure to find one that was offering prizes.

In my short political history, I’ve been involved in both occupy and liberty movement organizing, and I believe that substantial political change is impossible in this country until those two movements come together.  I didn’t believe “Occupy vs. Tea Party” would provide a platform for that type of work to take place, and thus, didn’t participate in the event.

The experience of planning to debate tea partiers has inspired me to commit to doing more organizing that brings the two groups together.  Stay tuned for that.

The FLO Consensus: Author’s Cut

Written by Devin Balkind

Edited by Leah Feder

Submitted to Palgave Publishing for inclusion in “Occupying Political Science” on 6/20/2012

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About the Author


I remember standing in the doorway of my bedroom and feeling the type of expansive, all-encompassing stress that can only exist in the mind of someone who hadn’t lived long enough to recognize the ups and downs of life. There were so many scenarios playing in my head I couldn’t even muster the mental energy to decide whether or not to walk into my room. I was 12 years old and I knew I had to transform my life or I’d go crazy. Then inspiration hit me. All my stress was rooted in guilt and all my guilt was rooted in my own lies. If I could stop lying to myself, to my family and to my friends, then I’d have nothing to feel guilty about, and thus no longer have any reason to be stressed. At that moment I decided to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to any and everyone, for the rest of my life.


At that moment I became an activist.


Context within the Occupy Movement


Within the Occupy Movement and, from what I understand, in many of the social movements that preceded it, there has always been a conflict between the “revolutionaries” that want to create a crisis to first disrupt, and then destroy, the existing social order; and the “reformers” who want to take control of existing power structures and change society from “the inside”. Within the occupy landscape, the “revolutionaries” gravitate towards the language of “occupy” and “direct action” while the “reformers” gravitate towards the language of “99%” and “protest.”


This essay is concerned with a third group within the occupy movement – a group rarely mentioned by the media and often discounted by the activists who spend their time doing the type of self-promotion that gets them on to panels. I’m referring to the “providers”: activists who invest their time and resources into providing services to individuals and groups within “the movement”. These people are often vocal advocates for “mutual aid” (leftist terminology) or “free aid” (rightist terminology). Since occupy originated more from the left than the right, the term “mutual aid” is most popular, defined on Wikipedia as “voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.” Within the context of OWS, mutual aid is probably more accurately described as “the revolutionary act of helping people for free.”


During the occupation of Liberty Square, there were 17 “operations working groups” which were defined by the “spokes council” as groups that supported the logistical operation of the park. About a dozen of them provided mutual aid-style services. A few examples of such groups were the OWS library, which maintained a reading space and made books accessible to the community, the “occupied kitchen”, which fed up to 5000 people a day, the street medics, who did their best to keep folks healthy, and the “comfort” group, which handed out clothes and other items to the park’s inhabitants. I’m involved with a group that came to be known as the Technology Operations Group, or TechOps for short. This group manages, a free/libre/opensource social network with nearly 10,000 users that became the main communications organ of the OWS community; stared the suite of free/libre/opensource software services such as the wiki, map, notepad and a dozen other services; manages the CRM (constituent relationship management) system that sends out newsletters to tens of thousands of people; and runs a cloud hosting environment.


Depending on one’s perspective, Occupy Wall Street’s TechOps groups was either a disastrous failure or a brilliant success. It was a failure because Occupy’s web presence is still wildly unorganized and people find it difficult to engage with the movement through the web. TechOps is a success because it has laid the foundation of a free/libre/opensource technical infrastructure that will integrate elegantly with existing FLO systems to provide a framework through which social movements can transform the economic landscape by “producing their way out of oppression.”


An Introduction to FLO


There is a global movement consisting of millions of the world’s most highly skilled people, a substantial portion of which believe they have the solution to all the world’s problems: free information. Before discounting this simplistic idea, consider that this movement’s participants have produced some of the world’s most significant technological innovations: the world-wide-web, Linux, LibreOffice, WordPress and Wikipedia, to name just a few of the thousands of software projects that identify as free, libre and/or opensource (FLO). When people attempt to estimate the value of FLO software to the economy, estimates are in the ten to hundreds of billions of dollars. In reality, the FLO movement contribution is invaluable: without it, the information technology revolution we have been experiencing over the last 50 years would not have been possible.


The origins of what some people are calling the FLO movement could begin millenia ago with the transition from oral histories to written ones. The basic idea that information should be free from restriction is an old one. However, stories have to start somewhere and the community at Wikipedia who wrote the page on the “history of free and open source software” is most qualified to tell the narrative. They begin with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturing Association of 1911.


“The concept of free sharing of technological information existed long before computers. For example, cooking recipes have been shared since the beginning of human culture. Open source can pertain to businesses and to computers, software and technology.

In the early years of automobile development, a group of capital monopolists owned the rights to a 2-cycle gasoline engine patent originally filed by George B. Selden.[1] By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands, or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, independent automaker Henry Ford won a challenge to the Selden patent. The result was that the Selden patent became virtually worthless and a new association (which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association) was formed.[1] The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers.[1] By the time the US entered World War 2, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared between these manufacturers, without any exchange of money (or lawsuits).[1][improper synthesis?]”

Software communities that can now be compared with today’s free-software community existed for a long time before the free-software movement and the term “free software”.[2] According to Richard Stallman, the software-sharing community at MIT existed for “many years” before he got involved in 1971.[3] In the 1950s and into the 1960s almost all software was produced by computer science academics and corporate researchers working in collaboration. As such, it was generally distributed under the principles of openness and co-operation long established in the fields of academia, and was not seen as a commodity in itself. At this time, source code, the human-readable form of software, was generally distributed with the software itself because users frequently modified the software themselves, because it would not run on different hardware or OS without modification, and also to fix bugs or add new functionality.[4]



To fully grasp the concept behind the “free software movement’ and the reason this author has chosen the term “FLO” we must look at how the word “free” is used in the English language. Free has two distinct meanings: free of charge (gratis) and free of restrictions (libre.) The free software movement is much more concerned with the latter freedom, not the former. While most in the movement envision a world where everyone has the software solutions they need to do the things they want, it’s the intellectual property restrictions that motivate them to organize, because it’s those restrictions that hamper innovation – and the act of innovation is the act of transforming problems into solutions. While free/gratis software can be used by consumers to temporarily satisfy a need, it’s free/libre software that can be used, edited, modified and resold by producers to develop transformative innovation.


While the “free software movement” advanced the philosophy of free/libre, the “open source movement” organized itself to implement FLO solutions for others. “Open source” was coined by a group of people who made their living by implementing free software solutions for clients. They found that the gratis definition of free confused people. If the software was “free”, then why did people who implemented it charge money? If anyone could download the software’s code, wouldn’t it be easy for hackers to exploit it? If my competitors can run the same software, then don’t I lose my advantage? If a community of volunteers maintain the software, how could I be sure that it would continue to be developed? Since most clients were not interested in the revolutionary potential of free/libre software, the “open source movement” chose to focus its attention on building the business case for FLO: its accessibility, the diversity of support options, limited vendor lock-in issues, etc. This approach has been very successful, but the “free software movement” saw it as a co-option of the core values of information activism – and thus resist using the term and encourage their communities to do the same.


Despite the naming wars and lack of community and brand cohesion within the FLO movement(s), FLO software has gained rapid adoption over the last few decades, and that adoption continues to accelerate. While the mainstream media focuses on the financial success of Facebook and Twitter, the technology community recognizes that the popular FLO content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla have transformed people’s capacity to build highly functional technology systems for themselves and their communities. It’s because of these CMS platforms that writers, video producers, schools, hospitals, governments and people of all types have access to increasingly sophisticated technology tools. Indeed, technical solutions that cost $50,000 5 years ago cost $5,000 now, and will cost $500 in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t because of Moore’s law, which states that microchip prices will naturally go down by 50% every 18 months. It’s because the FLO software community produces solutions to common challenges everyday, and in aggregate those solutions create a FLO technology commons that makes it easier and easier for people to create the solutions they want. This process has – and continues to – fundamentally transformed the technology sector – and beyond.


FLO and the Physical World


In the last few years, FLO has made the leap to the physical world. One of the centers of FLO hardware culture is Marcin Jacobowski’s Factor e Farm in Missouri. Marcin was a high energy physicist turned rural homesteader who has spent the last few years coordinating the development of a series of 50 tools that he calls the “Global Village Construction Set” – or GVCS for short. The organizing principle behind the GVCS is Marcin’s claim that these tools could be built on-site from readily available materials and that, once built, these tools could be used to produce all the comforts of “modern” living: everything from food, clothing and shelter to tractors, solar concentrators and batteries.


The distinguishing feature of Marcin’s GVCS project isn’t its ambition – the internet is awash with dreamers describing their dreams. Nor is it its technical sophistication – there are myriad other high-tech open hardware projects out there. The GVCS became the darling of the Free/Libre/Open Source Everything community because its instigator took the virtual conversations taking place about a FLO world and turned them into a livable reality for people brave enough to come out to Missouri, live in a yurt and work non-stop toward building FLO hardware tools.


The most difficult part of FLO hardware development is the production of the documentation people need to recreate the tools. One reason this is so difficult is that it often takes one very specific type of intelligence to solve a hardware engineering problem and a completely different type of intelligence to document how that solution works in a way that’s useful to other people who want to build, edit, modify and contribute their own innovations to the project. Over time, best practices have developed for doing this type of documentation within the FLO software community. Their solution set involves writing “read me” pages that orient people to the project, placing comments into the code, writing guides for developers and users in a wiki, having highly structured project management systems and providing venues for public discussion. The GVCS project incorporated a lot of these practices into their work with great success, but also discovered the limitations of employing software practices for real world applications – limitations that Occupy Wall Street would begin to experience as it attempted to employ open source principles in the pursuit of global revolution.


FLO Solutions at Occupy Wall Street


When I came to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th, I had an agenda: bring the free/libre/opensource movement’s message to the “demonstrators”. This is something I had experience doing with “liberty” activists surrounding the Ron Paul campaign, and I was eager to see how the message translated to “leftists”. Within the first week of the Occupation, I had created the “Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group” and was making daily mic checks at the General Assembly about the importance of Free/Libre/Opensource movement.


“Mic Check!”

“Mic Check.”

“I’m from the Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group!”

“I’m from the Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group.”

“Free/libre/opensource solutions!”

“Free/libre/opensource soltuions.”

“give you the right”

“give you the right”

to use

to use

to edit

to edit

to modify

to modify

to sell

to sell

solutions people need

solutions people need

to create the world they want

to create the world they want.


I also handed out hundreds of fliers explaining Marcin Jacobowski’s GVCS project. To many people in the those early days, I was known as the open source tractor guy. For a small fraction of those people who were actually FLO activists themselves, I became someone worth connecting with because I was working on the same revolution as they were.


To FLOers, the peer-to-peer, networked, FLO information revolution is the revolution. Not only is the FLO revolution democratizing communications, making it easier than ever for people to organize themselves outside the framework of a corporation or state to state a political revolution, but FLO technologies are also making information accessible to facilitate a productivity revolution. In the productivity revolution, individuals and communities are empowered to produce their own goods and services. While this might sound fanciful, think about the GVCS. What if high quality, production ready plans existed for all the technologies people need to create a “modern” community – from food and shelter technologies to the financial services ones that Wall Street uses to move capital around the world at breakneck speeds? Is there any doubt the world would be a wealthier place, and that this wealth would be available to more people than ever before?


The vision of a world in which material scarcity is vanquished by improved productivity is often called “abundance”. Abundance has been the topic of a number of books in recent decades, but surprisingly few of them point to the FLO movement as the vehicle through which an abundance revolution is made possible. Instead, they look more at abundance from the perspective of the self – in which people go through a transformation where they lose their fear of being without food, shelter, and social affirmation and embrace the reality of an abundant world in which all their needs will be met as long as they follow a certain set of practices that often involve being nice to other people and being open to new opportunities


Abundance is an increasingly popular vision among all types of people, but only the FLO movement has a practical strategy for achieving it: give people the tools and techniques they need to create the things they want. When people are empowered to produce for themselves, they are much less easy to exploit. For this reason, abundance is, in this author’s opinion, the only modality in which a truly non-coercive, anarchist society is possible – and FLO solutions are the only way we’ll be able to achieve such a revolution.


Since so many people at Occupy Wall Street identify themselves as anarchists, one would imagine that this message would be very appealing to occupiers – and it is. In fact, people within Occupy Wall Street are more than happy to declare themselves aligned with the FLO movement. Indeed, the three major statements of Occupy Wall Street all contain endorsements of the FLO movement – and that wasn’t an accident. FLO solutions were vigorously advocated within the movement – not just by me, but by nearly every technologist that showed up to do the work of providing technical solutions to the budding movement.


After starting the FLO Solutions group with a number of friends, it became very clear to many of us that advocating FLO approaches was the easy part. Implementing them would be another story. The Internet Working Group, which maintained – the General Assembly’s communication platform – was feuding with, the movement’s most popular website, over control of the online brand. Meanwhile, a number of groups and individuals emerged claiming to be PR. Press, OWSPR, etc. Wealthy liberals came out of the woodwork to offer us free websites that they would build and of which they would have undefined levels of control. In short, distributing a coherent message through strategically aligned online platforms wasn’t something the technologists in Zuccotti had the ability to accomplish. Therefore, our collective focus shifted from outward facing communication platforms to empowering the myriad individuals and groups within the movement with good FLO solutions.


To achieve this goal, the FLO Solutions Group began working with the Internet Working Group to transform the website from a standard WordPress into a social network activists could use to communicate with each other. Collaboration around this task and others made it clear that the Internet and FLO Solutions Groups were one in the same. The lines between the two faded away: FLO Solutions gave its radical FLO activism philosophy to Internet and Internet gave its responsibility for managing the NYCGA’s technology infrastructure to FLO Solutions. The synthesis of the groups, however, wasn’t made official until the formation of the Spokes Council required working groups to officially register. Since the distinction was being made between “operations” groups that worked on supporting the Zuccotti occupation and “movement” groups that were interested in policy, we decided to name ourselves “Technology Operations Group” – TechOps for short.


By this time, the general consensus within TechOps was that we would focus on developing internal communications tools and supporting activists through technology, letting the various PR and Media groups and take responsibility for public facing content. Instead of focusing on fans and followers, TechOps spent its time developing enterprise grade FLO systems that would enhance activist work. We deployed a constituent relationship management (CRM) system that can send millions of emails to constituents, a wiki that uses the semantic technology we need to develop a globally accessible shared knowledge resource, a directory of all the occupations around the world, news aggregators, campaign websites and literally dozens of other solutions. We also continued to maintain, which was becoming an increasingly important tools for the emerging OWS bureaucracy.


Occupy Wall Street was organized through a “working groups” model in which people would join a group of people with similar interests, attend “open meetings” and give report backs to the General Assembly. Benefits of group membership was affiliation with “Occupy Wall Street” and the ability to solicit funds, which had hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal. Since each group was given a presence on, defining a group became the responsibility of TechOps. Guidelines were written up by a team that required groups to conduct regular meetings in the NYC area, take notes at each of those meetings, and have up-to-date contact information on their group page. These rules were followed by many of the larger groups, but were untenable for smaller ones – making the policy difficult to enforce.

Once groups were accepted, they were required to pick administrators who then became the only people with the ability to post official events to the site. Group admins could also promote and delete users, edit comments and create a “group blog” at an NYCGA subdomain. The myriad of permissions and clumsiness with which they were set up created a variety of problems that slowly turned from a no-nonsense communications and documentation platform into a venue for some of the movement’s most vitriolic conversations. While we outlined a variety of administrative guidelines for positive and responsible community management, we found it very difficult to enforce them with any type of regularity. The need for enforcement was becoming increasingly important as the disruptive behavior that was ruining the productivity of General Assemblies and Spokes Councils was transferring over to the online community. It wasn’t long before each of the most disruptive people at OWS also had personas. Some of them had multiple personas to increase their capacity to disrupt. Many people suspected this type of activity was taking place when they would see two personas using similarly structured language to agree with each other or echo criticism, and it was confirmed when site system administrators discovered those personas had the same IP addresses. Whether this was an indication that these people were “provocateurs” hired to disrupt the OWS community from making forward progress or just off-kilter people who enjoyed a conflict was a question TechOps never fully tackled. But these situations were rare. More problematic was that there were “normal” trolls within many group forums on, that lots of Occupy activists have bad internet manners and that, quite simply, there were many conflicting personalities within Occupy Wall Street – and forums were a popular place for clashes amongst such personalities to take place. The aggregate effect was that became an “unsafe space” that people didn’t want to use to communicate, and which they instead used only to comply with the demands of the OWS bureaucracy.


As struggled as both a community site and a platform with severe technical limitations, it became clear to many in TechOps that we should shift our focus away from and into was secured in the early days of the occupation by a member of FLO Solutions. We began to use its subdomains to host various software services that we thought OWS activists would need to conduct a successful social movement. Our decisions to deploy certain tools were very much informed by our experiences working with other FLO projects – especially the experiences of the GVCS project. We deployed MediaWiki, the software used by Wikipedia, as a knowledge management solution at; CiviCRM, the world’s most popular FLO constituent relationship management tool up at; a directory of all the movement’s occupy websites at; a news aggregator at; a mapping solution at; and much more. At this moment, we have 8 “launched” software services and about 30 more in evaluation phases.


Unlike, which was a utility for Occupy Wall Street in New York managed by a NYC based group of techies, is a set of tools, each of which is maintained by a different team, many of whom aren’t located in the New York area. In some ways it’s the software equivalent to the GVCS: all of the FLO software tools our community needs to build a robust social movement. The intention behind the toolkit is to do more than simply provide the Occupy movement with useful tools; it’s to provide an FLO alternative to the world’s largest web application provider – Google. That isn’t as crazy as it might sound: there is an FLO alternative for nearly every Google application, but no one has tied all these FLO alternatives together with a unified design language, single user sign-on, comprehensive documentation and community support network to create something that feels competitive. Our ability to frame as an alternative to corporate software is what attracts activist technologists to maintain services under the name. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to attract the attention of the mainstream media, who are looking for stories about social media flash mobs organized on corporate social networks like Facebook and Twitter, not how a bunch of technologists are designing, deploying and maintaining enterprise grade FLO software solutions that will be able to enhance the movement’s growth over the long term and chart how to create software infrastructure for the new, emergent, FLO economy.


Where’s the Marketing Department?


Deploying dozens of technical solutions at has been much easier than getting activists to use the tools. When Occupy Wall Street first started, I assumed, like many techies did, that Outreach, Info and various other working groups would want to build email lists so they could develop deeper relationships with people who were inspired by the Occupation. To my surprise, I found it extremely difficult to find anyone interested in taking responsibility for collecting email addresses and producing a newsletter. By the 2nd month of the occupation, we had a CRM solution together for use by “Outreach”– but it took them another 3 months to begin to use it.


To what could we attribute this failure in community adoption, observable not just in the CRM but in the Occupy wiki, the mapping application, and the other dozen or so tools made available through the project? First of all, the very nature of Occupy’s decentralized, autonomous organizing is that few groups exist to serve the others. The corollary of this truth is that groups quickly began to assume that they would have to rely on their own [communications] tools and resources to meet all of their organizing needs. When TechOps came forward with the tools that we saw a need for and were in some instances even requested to produce, few came to us as a resource, and fewer still followed through with our recommendations.


This speaks to a problem familiar to those in the technology world: highly useful tools are produced but users don’t adopt them. It was one thing for us to produce the tools that were necessary—it was an entirely different challenge to actually communicate these services outward, a task people within the media community are more qualified to tackle than those in the technology one.


Ideally, this would have been a function performed by the Media Working Group—a group which specialized in the production and promotion of documentary content. Unfortunately, instead of documenting how activists can use tools to enhance their work, their attention was more focused on conflicts between “protesters and police” —known inside the movement as “riot porn.” This isn’t surprising as mainstream media outlets would often evaluate whether or not to cover an “action” by asking the self-identified occupy PR people how many arrests they thought would be taking place. Violence gets views, and media people produce content so people can view it, so it’s not surprising they gravitate towards the sensational instead of the functional, brutality instead of kindness, actions over mutual aid. This highlights, once again, the conflicting interests of those who create crisis through disruptive actions and those who develop solutions through sharing productivity tools and techniques. Activist movements have traditionally found it difficult bringing these groups to the same table where they can align their interests around a single vision and set of strategies. It helps if that table has lots of delicious, regionally appropriate, organic food grown by mutual friends.


Food at Occupy Wall Street


Food is the foundation of our society, our economy and our culture. Everyone eats, and most people like to talk about their eating experiences. It’s safe to say food is one of humanity’s most shared interests. Food has played a central role in the Occupy Wall Street experience. While the marches and actions captured the attention of the mainstream media, it was the occupied kitchen that captured the attention of those who came to Zuccotti Park. At its height, the occupied kitchen was serving over 5,000 free meals a day. It was so successful at feeding people that many OWS activists blame it for the “failure” of the occupation. In the first week of the occupation, before it became a national news item, nearly all of Zuccotti’s inhabitants were activists who came out for Occupy Wall Street. As the mainstream became aware of the occupation, word spread that there was food available for all who showed up. At first non-activist groups that showed up were homeless people who found park life more comfortable and exciting than life on the streets. As time went on, all types of street people found a home and hot meal at Zuccotti Park – including the mentally unstable, drug dealers and other “unsavory characters” that made the park feel increasingly dangerous. By the time of the eviction, things had deteriorated substantially and the park’s culture had turned from an activist center to something more akin to a refugee camp. The Daily Show’s now-famous piece describing the divide between the east side of the park, which was filled with more mainstream activists, and the west side of the park, which was filled with “street people”, was accurate but missed the critical importance of food in explaining why both communities continued to inhabit the space.


The food narrative is central in the story of Occupy Wall Street. If the media, mainstream or otherwise, had followed the narrative thread of food, they would have encountered OWS’s truly radical narrative that explains how people can voluntarily organize themselves to produce services for an inclusive community within the confines of a militarized American metropolis. The articulation of such a narrative, and it’s popular distribution is an important goal of for many people involved in Occupy Wall Street, but as members of the mutual aid community, we know that talking about providing services is much easier than actually providing them. While Zuccotti was in operation, we had an opportunity to make the case for a mutual aid revolution because we had an example to point to, but the eviction destroyed that example. We need to produce another, more resilient one. Fortunately, we’ve spent 9 months setting up the FLO technology infrastructure to make that possible.


FLO Farms, FLO Food


A popular phrase within food activist communities is “no farms – no food.” Within the context of occupy, that phrase could very well mean “if we don’t organize farms, we won’t be able to organize the distribution of food.” From the unlabeled genetically modified organisms (GMO) in mainstream food to the predatory practices of agro-business, the inhumane treatment of livestock to our food system’s dependency on fossil fuels, there’s more than enough opportunities to criticize our existing industrial-captialist food system. So, when Occupy Farms was chartered as a working group within the NYCGA, no one would have been surprised if it had developed into another criticism-oriented group – but it didn’t. Instead, Occupy Farms started building relationships between rural farmers and urban occupiers and helping occupy activists get out of the city and onto some farmland. By approaching its work from the perspective of a service provider, Occupy Farms established itself as a mutual aid group — compelling myself and others in TechOps to join and bring all of our tools to this effort. In doing so, we switched roles from being tool providers to users, allowing us to see things from a different perspective and better understand the type of documentation we need to produce to make these tools accessible to the OWS community.


Like most groups, Occupy Farms needed a website through which to communicate its intentions, share logistical information with its community and collect information about individuals interested in its work. In response to that need, we deployed a WordPress website with the necessary functionality, organized our information on the wiki, used our CiviCRM to match occupiers and began sending out a regular newsletter to our community. We also created a Google Docs collection to share information among Occupy Farms core team members. While Google Docs certainly isn’t free/libre, its usefulness is difficult to exaggerate.


While documentation for all of the tools we deployed existed, it was mostly directed a technical audience who might want to help us support the tools, not an activist audience who simply wants to use them. This became very obvious to us as the Occupy Farmers ran into difficulties and had to come to us to resolve them because the documentation was insufficient for their purposes. Fortunately, in an act of mutual aid, some people in Occupy Farms offered to work with TechOps to write appropriate documentation so it’s easier for more individuals and groups to adopt the tools. This activity will greatly benefit the entire Occupy Wall Street community and will also benefit Occupy Farms. When more people use FLO tools, more bugs are found and squashed, more features are defined and implemented, and more solutions are integrated together to create better products for all. Not only can our FLO systems support ten to a hundred times more users, but we can also easily package our solutions up and distribute them to affiliated groups for a near zero marginal cost. This doesn’t just apply to Occupy Wall Street related groups – it applies to everything.


The FLO Consensus


During Occupy Wall Street’s brief history, the OWS community has asserted numerous times the importance it places on freely sharing information, defining itself as a FLO movement. The Declaration of the Occupation of New York instructs us to “generate solutions accessible to all”; the Principles of Solidarity requests we make “technologies, knowledge, and culture open to all to freely access, create, modify, and distribute”; and the Statement of Autonomy defines Occupy Wall Street by saying it “is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand.”


For people truly interested in transforming the world, solving the big problems and empowering each other to self-actualize, intellectual property is a nuisance that gets in the way of productive collaborations that generate solutions anyone can use. Common sense dictates that if we, the people, share a problem, we should work together to produce free (meaning both gratis, as in no cost; and libre, as in no restrictions) solutions to everyday challenges that are also openly accessible so anyone can use, edit, modify and even sell to others. Yet the vast majority of the general public isn’t even aware that such a possibility exist, much less that the FLO movement exists to do just that. For many activists and do-gooders who have not fully ingested the “FLO Everything pill”, the idea of a free/libre/open source world in which abundant information technologies leads to an abundance of the material things sounds unbelievable at best and disillusion at worst. For those of us who have taken the pill, however, that world of abundance is an often experienced reality that motivates a type of distributed activism that’s unique in the western world.


The easiest way to share that abundant reality is through the food system, and the food system is ready for an information revolution. If you ask any small farmer about the quality of their tools, they’ll tell you that the big agricultural corporations are neglecting them. Monsanto, John Deere, Cargill and others have shifted their focus from small scale farmers to industrial farm operators. This leaves small farmers, those whom Jefferson considered the backbone of American democracy, with a poor selection of products and services from which to choose and the FLO community with a massive opportunity to break into the agricultural market.


Conventionally, large corporations have the advantage when it comes to industrial innovation because they have the capital necessary to support expensive research and development initiatives. FLO hardware can only be viable when information technologies are sophisticated enough to allow individuals to take responsibility for their own capital needs while aggregating their innovation with others to produce something that everyone can own. Innovations in FLO software make this possible. FLO computer aided design (CAD) technologies enable people to transfer production ready schematics in a single file and subversioning technologies like GIT enable people to track changes to keep file histories organized. 3D printers, torch tables and CNC machines are all emerging to make small scale, micro factories not only possible but profitable. Factor e Farm is producing FLO brick presses in Missouri that are cheaper than their industrial, mass produced competitors by a factor of three. As Marcin Jacobowski of Factor e Farm says in his TED talk:


“This is only the beginning. If this idea is truly sound, than the implications are significant. A greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chain and a newly relevant DIY maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity. We’re exploring the limits of what we can all do to make a better world with open hardware technology.”


In the digital realm, the troubleshooting process is relatively easy – you turn it on, it doesn’t work, and you turn it off. In the physical realm, depending on what you’re building, the cost of failure is real: both in time and resources. If, for example, someone tried a new tractor design feature and it failed, the cost is substantial in materials, capital and time. So substantial, in vast, that the vast majority of small farmers, hardware innovation is prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, land use innovation is not.


If there is any doubt that America is in need of dramatically improving the way its residents manage land, consider that American farmers are paid by the government to destroy their crops. This isn’t a conspiracy: it’s an acknowledged practice and proof that we need widespread distribution of permacultural practices such as natural building, intensive agro-forestry, concentrated solar construction, and other DIY innovations. Armed with the knowledge of how to produce wealth with land, America’s energetic youth can build their own communities – earth brick by earth brick. By bridging the gap between those who desire a new society and the more docile older population who owns the land but prefer to spend their time pursuing other pastimes, Occupy Farms is organizing the infrastructure for a new, FLO economy. If we exhaust the resources of friendly land owners, we can take the land from the Federal government, which owns 29% America, mostly in the western states. Just a small fraction of Federal land could support all the Americans who want to transition from the industrial lifestyle to a more ecologically sensitive and liberated one.


This lifestyle doesn’t necessarily involve conventional farming, which has a well deserved reputation as being hard work. Permacultural practices produce ample amounts of food but in a different way. While farming focus on producing crops that need to be planted and harvested every year, permaculture focuses on creating abundant landscapes that produce more per acre over the long term. Permaculturists design their landscapes in layers. For example, a permaculturist will plant nut trees, vines, berry bushes and grown crops all in the same space. Once planted, these crops require minimal maintenance, and when mature, the space will produce food consistently over the course of the year, every year. Permaculturists proudly call themselves lazy farmers and viewing their horticultural approach as an evolution of conventional agriculture and the foundation of a solutions-based social movement of its own. While their natural instinct is to share as much information as possible with any and all people who’re interested in a more sustainable lifestyle, their exposure to FLO practices is minimal so the community is still producing more books than semantically structure online knowledge resources, but that’s changing thanks to projects like, and Each of these projects have Occupy activists embedded within them who are coordinating with each other to ensure that we’re all ready to integrate our resources when the time come.


A master plan for revolution is organically emerging that involves the development of a competency in useful FLO solutions within the occupy community, the distribution of FLO solutions through networks of rural farms, urban occupied spaces and allied communities, and the manifestation of a new set of exchange practices that can replace the coercive neoliberal economic model with something more conducive to the collaborative production practices of a FLO economy.


FLO economics can’t exist without FLO money. Fortunately, money is just a technology and there’s already a sufficient FLO alternative to the Federal Reserve Note called Bitcoin. While the mainstream media likes to pretend that Bitcoin is a product you can purchase, it’s better understood as a software service people can deploy to create their own cryptographically secure digital currency network. Just as physical currency has security features such as intricate designs, unique textures and exotic printed features, digital currency requires cryptographic features to remain secure. One way to understand Bitcoin is to focus on its physical features. A Bitcoin is a long string of information – numbers, letters and symbols – that can be printed out as a QR code. That QR code contains the Bitcoin. If you give it to someone, they have the Bitcoin. When they scan the QR code, the Bitcoin is transferred onto a computer and automatically authenticated by the network of computers running the Bitcoin software. Once authenticated, the network changes the Bitcoin, so the QR code can’t be reused. If someone wants to create a physical Bitcoin again, they have to print out a new QR code.


Just as a Federal Reserve Note is one part of our currency ecosystem which also includes everything from gift certificates and credit cards to complex derivatives, Bitcoin is one tool in a toolbox of alternative currency technologies that are emerging to support the new types of exchanges being motivated by FLO economics. It’ll be quite some time before a FLO currency can provide its users with the breadth of economic exchange possibilities as the Federal Reserve Note, it won’t be long before someone in the Northeastern United States York purchases some local produce from an occupied farm using FLO currency systems. Indeed, by the time you’ve read this, it might have already taken place.


“The revolution is here – it’s just not everywhere.”

As If We Couldn’t

If you listen to media’s murmuring, you’d think that the American people were ready to give up.  The bankers are too crafty, the corporations too powerful and the politicians too pliant.  We don’t know which way is up, where to turn or on whom to depend.  We’re lost, sad, unhappy, and maybe a little overweight.  For a few brief moments we had HOPE that that America’s most powerful institutions could still solve our problems during commercial breaks.  Yes we can, they whispered in our ears.  Yes we can…

As if we couldn’t. As if the American people couldn’t recognize a lie when it’s told to our face.  As if the American entrepreneur couldn’t maneuver around the obstacles created by international bankers and their confused economists.  As if the men and women in our Armed Forces who committed to defending our Constitution couldn’t stand up to anyone who demanded that they oppress their fellow citizens.  As if our farmers couldn’t team up to develop their own technologies, save their own seeds and reap their own harvests.  As if honest people couldn’t win elections.

“You can fool some people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”  I think Bob Dylan said that.  Americans are getting smarter – not the coastal elites who think reading the New York Times qualifies as civic participation – but the “dumb” Americans who’ve enough common sense to recognize that Big Government and Big Business have teamed up to steal our wealth while misdirecting us with the help of the corporate media.  But they don’t control everything on the internet, and as the veil is lifted, both the problems and solutions become much more clear.  I’m particularly interested in the solutions.

While Silicon Valley gets all the press for their trendy products, thousands of programmers, engineers and developers across the world continue to build the free, libre and open source technologies upon which local economies depend.  While multinational chemical companies receive prestigious awards for monopolizing agriculture, American farmers continue to share best practices, organizing seed banks and reach customers directly through farmer’s markets.  While central bankers act like economic gods with their reactionary monetary policies,  local entrepreneurs continue to discover new opportunities to create real value for their communities.

If you’re looking for problems, you’re going to find prestigious people in glossy magazines whining about the difficulties that lie ahead.  If you’re looking for solutions, you’re going to find unrecognized folks working  quietly and feverishly, as if the fate of the world depended on it.  The time for criticism is over.  The time for action is here.

If you’re interested in the emergence of the new, participatory, local-networked economy, what Buckminster Fuller would describe as “a new model that makes the existing models obsolete,” start reading about free/libre/open source technology and ask yourself this simple question: what if everyone had the tools they need to create what they want.

The best has yet to come.

Political Structure in 3D

Our society spends a lot of time talking about democracy but rarely defines it.  While the term comes from the Greek words “demos” (people) and “kratos” (power,) many political scientists have abandoned it due to widespread misuse and instead use the term “polyarchy”, which means ‘many rule.’  It was convincingly inserted into the academic lexicon by the the political scientist Robert Dahl in his 1971 book “Polyarchy.”


Dahl proposes that all political systems can be places on a graph with two axis: competitiveness and inclusiveness.  Competitiveness asks: who can compete for political office.  Inclusiveness asks: who can decide who wins the competition.  We can apply the concept of polyarchy by asking these questions of different political systems: for example: the America and Israel.

America has a two-party system which makes it less competitive than Israel, which has dozens of political parties in parliament, enabling more people with more diverse perspectives to compete.  This makes Israel a more “competitive” state than American. But, since Israel doesn’t allow Palestinians to vote, America is a more inclusive state.

Dahl’s definition of polyarchy is good, but it’s not complete.  His theory doesn’t account for the most powerful force in politics:  information distribution.  Those who control access to information have tremendous political power because they can amplify certain elements within society and silence others.

Including “openness” (defined as transparency and accessibility) into the model improved it because it allows us to address the issue of information distribution.  In a state with positive openness, information flows between government and society in an efficient manner that facilitates public participation in political processes.  In a state with negative transparency, misinformation flows between government and society, enabling a secretive ruling class to exploit the general public.

By adding openness to Dalh’s polyarchy graph as the third dimension,  one naturally wonders what the relationship between competitiveness and inclusiveness could be. Can we graph this relationship? After looking at dozens of possibilities, z=x^3 + y^3 looks compelling.  In this graph, a positively transparent society appears in the top left area of the plane while a negatively transparent society appears in the bottom right area one.



Let’s see what this relationship reveals:

  • A society that is inclusive but not competitive has a negative openness. This makes sense because, in this scenario, a lot of people are supporting a poor selection of leaders, making the construction of false realities essential to convince people the situation is acceptable.  Ex. the Soviet Union had a vast propaganda machine while the one-party political made competition virtually nonexistent.
  • A society that is competitive but not inclusive is highly transparent. This makes sense because each individual who can vote has an unusually high influence on their political system, so it makes sense for them to invest time and resources in information that makes selecting good leadership easier.  Ex. 19th century America had a very active, highly decentralized news and information distribution sector (newspapers) geared towards properties white men of voting age.
  • A society that is both competitive and inclusive would be extremely open. This makes sense because so many citizens would have both the ability select from a diverse set of potential candidates, which would prompt the public to engage in mass participation in the political process. Ex. More open societies statistically have higher levels of voter turnout.)

We’re in the early stages of “participatory” politics as new tools (ex. OpenCongress) are enabling the public to increase transparency and accessibility of information to levels impossible before the advent of networked technologies.  A tremendous increase in government transparency seems to be imminent.  We could watch this happen in real time if we turned our 3D graph into a 4D animation, allowing us to track different societies paths towards more participatory political processes over time.

We need a common, quantitative understanding of political imperative so our governments can create purposeful foreign policies that encourage competitiveness, inclusiveness and openness.  A simple way for national governments to advance a foreign policy based on quantitative principle would be to raise tariffs with closed nations and lower tariffs with closed ones.