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Tag Archive: ALEC

Debunking the Wall Street Journal’s odd case against disclosure


Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn is a well-known champion of free market capitalism. As somebody who supposedly understands all the benefits of markets, it is strange to see him attack disclosure and full transparency, as he did in a Wall Street Journal column this week entitled “The Chick-fil-A War is Back On: Welcome to the new intolerance.” McGurn starts off with some complains about how poor ol' Chick-fil-A is being treated. Apparently Mr. McGurn finds something intolerable about fast food consumers exercising their freedoms of choice and speech and using market forces to affect change. Would he feel the same way if they were complaining that the chicken tastes like rubber? Is not a boycott the most capitalist-friendly method of pushing change, with its pure reliance on market forces? McGurn also has bigger chickens to fry. He also doesn’t like the market-oriented (again) way that consumers have been sending signals to corporations that belong to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that writes model legislation in secret and has recently come under fire for pushing model “Stand Your Ground” legislation at the state level. And back in 2005, he didn’t like consumers pressuring Charles Schwab from supporting the libertarian Cato Institute. And though he does not discuss campaign finance disclosure directly, it is hard to ignore that for the last few months, there is been an ongoing debate as to whether so-called “dark money” 501(c) groups should be required to reveal their donors. In July, Senate Republicans filibustered the DISCLOSE ACT, which would have required these groups to disclose their donors. Our best guess is that just two dark money groups (Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity) have already spent $174 million on this election. And that the total dark money figure could approach $1 billion. McGurn apparently thinks all these contributions should happen behind the scenes, so that consumers and citizens can remain blissfully ignorant of the political agendas of the companies that they support in the marketplace. He writes that while transparency “may sound fine in theory, in practice these requirements can conflict with the right of people to come together in free association.”

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Open States: Present and Future


Open States map @ 25I'm pleased to say that Caitlin and James have just finished giving our Open States project a lovely new design. Not only is the site now much more pleasing to look at, it's much easier to see the great progress that's being made by James, Mike and our volunteer contributors. In addition to the five states that are live (and supported by OpenGovernment), there are already another twelve states with "experimental" status. Don't let the scare-quotes scare you, though: while we wouldn't yet recommend building your air traffic control system or pacemaker firmware in such a way that it's dependent on our API coverage of Alaska, the scrapers from the experimental states are well on their way to being declared complete. Developers should confident about building around this data -- rest assured that it'll be declared "ready" soon enough.

Of course, we hope that developers in our community will also consider becoming involved in the project directly -- there's plenty of work to be done.

And it's genuinely important work. State legislatures are where vital decisions are made about civil rights, transportation, education, taxes, land use, gun regulation, and a host of other issues. Far too often, these issues don't get the attention they deserve. It's a simple question of scale: there are a lot more resources available at the federal level for both lawmakers and journalists. That means state governance both requires more transparency and tends to get less of it. We think technology can help make the situation better -- that's what Open States is all about.

There are some interesting opportunities for cross-state work, too. Polisci geeks will probably appreciate the comparative politics opportunities that a common data model and API will allow (Gabriel Florit's already been creating some cool visualization experiments that build on our data). But there are also less academic applications for this information. Consider these two stories that NPR published last fall. They got a bit lost in the pre-election shuffle, but they made a big impression on me.

The gist of it is this: Arizona's controversial immigration law didn't happen by magic. One of the special interests fighting for it was the private prison lobby -- as you might imagine, having more prisoners means more business for them, and they saw increased enforcement of immigration laws as a growth opportunity. So, via an intermediary organization that specializes in this sort of thing, they conducted a legislator "education" campaign, wining and dining lawmakers and sending them home with prewritten model legislation.

All of this is perfectly legal. And, depending on your opinion about immigration, you might even approve of the policy outcome it produced. But it's hard to imagine anyone being okay with the shadowy role that commercial interests appear to have played in this legislative process. If we'd been able to spot the provenance of the legislation earlier, would journalists and organizers have been able to give the people of Arizona a more complete understanding of what was going on? I think so -- I hope so. That's the kind of use that Open States should make possible, and the one I'm most excited about.

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