Solve Nation’s Problems with Citizen 20% Time

Google is the most innovative company in the world, in large part because they hire smart people who get things done, and they give their engineers 20% time to work on any project they want. Google has found a powerful way to unleash creativity to solve incredible technical problems.

I wonder what would happen if enough Americans did the same thing — devoted 20% of their work week — to finding solutions to our nations problems that might actually work.

In Utah there has been talk about the government’s experiment with a 4-day work week. What if a large number of citizens worked 10 hour days on Monday through Thursday and then took Fridays off to participate in government? We are, after all, ultimately in charge of what our government does. At least we are supposed to be. Or what if we devoted 2 hours a day, not to watching TV, but to reading the best books on major political topics and searching for the right solutions — based in historical fact and experience and true principles — and not on party politics? 

Most Americans believe that our government has been failing us and that we really need change. Last July, a Gallup poll showed that approval of Congress had hit an all-time low of 14%.  

So we voted for change in Washington, and in March our approval rating of Congress “soared” to 39%. And that is a four year high!

I’m amazed that a free people is willing to put up with a government for so long that we are so dissatisfied with.

My 20% Time Projects

I’d like to use my 20% time on a couple of projects. First, I’m trying to understand the root causes of the global financial meltdown. I’m documenting all my findings on a web site called Crashopedia. I’d like to learn for myself what we (meaning our government) should do to prevent future global financial crises. Not that I think I can solve the problem; but I feel a responsibility to try, to at least do my part to help. Especially after what I have learned so far.

Second, I have set up a new non-partisan Facebook group called Citizen 20% Time, where I hope to make contact with other citizens who are willing to take responsibility for what has gone wrong in our country (we elected the people who passed the laws that allowed these awful things to happen–George Will refers to our Congress as toxic assets). I’d like to interact with others who devote time and energy to creative problem solving, who don’t play the partisan blame game, but put forth ideas that could really help.

And third, I plan to study the issue of Congressional representation and stagnation. I want to understand why so many of us feel disenfranchised, even though we hold free elections every two years for the House and every six years for the Senate. 

I have learned already that the Apportionment Act of 1911 capped the number of House members at 435. While the Constitution said there would be a representative for every 30,000 people, today it is closer to one for every 700,000. (The proposed First Amendment to the Constitution, never ratified, would have changed this.) Just yesterday, I discovered an interesting non-partisan non-profit that is seeking to return the House of Representatives to the people. 

I found another non-profit in DC that says we should require our elected representatives to actually read the bills that they vote on. What a novel idea! I think most people would be outraged to know that their Senators and Representatives don’t actually read the bills that they vote for, including the massive spending bills.

We should also give citizens time to read bills before they are voted on. The Obama-Biden campaign web site promised, “As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.” The web site promises that this “Sunlight before Signing” promise will be implemented soon.

Inspired by Entrepreneurs

I have always been inspired by entrepreneurs. One favorite is Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone while trying to be a teacher of the deaf. (Later he built the first airplane in Canada, he held the world speed record for fastest boat, and he helped start the National Geographic Society, among many other accomplishments.) He was really into genetics. He believed every child should have a chart showing photographs of their ancestors so they could see who they inherited their physical characteristics from. He tried for 3 decades to breed sheep so they would always bear twins. That would have significantly moved that industry forward. He failed, but he tried.

Today I am inspired by internet entrepreneurs like Jimmy Wales, who created Wikipedia, which is becoming the greatest contribution to organizing and disseminating knowledge that the world has ever seen. (Now we need entrepreneurs who can help millions of students and teachers worldwide to take more full advantage of the wealth of knowledge that is found here.) As recently as a couple of years ago, Wikipedia was headquartered in a Florida mall and had like 5 full time employees. I’m sure it has since grown, but talk about a project where a few full time people (combined with the wisdom of the crowds) can benefit hundreds of millions of people worldwide with more access to knowledge.

I am a huge fan of Josh Kopelman, a very successful entrepreneur who is now one of the best and brightest investors in the country. Josh recently attended the TED conference and came up with a powerful idea — to harness the “bread crumbs” of the social internet to study disease causation on a massive scale (as opposed to medical research studies that involve just a small number of participants.)

I think citizen entrepreneurs will do much more than politicians can ever do to actually solve the massive problems that we are facing today.

The Sunlight Foundation, for example, has raised several million dollars from Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay) to bring transparency to government, and to help us hold our elected representatives accountable. This is much needed, since the historical role of the free press to hold government accountable has been lost — today’s media is about entertainment and sensationalism.

I’d like to think that an outside entity like this could take all the data published online by the Federal Government, marry it with mobile applications, and social networking, and for the first time, give every citizen a very simple way to find out exactly what their own elected officials are doing.

The amount of effort that is required today to find online federal databases and publications or CSPAN broadcasts and to search them, and to actually find out what is going on in Washington, DC, is herculean. Few citizens have time to sift and sort through all the content in order to figure out what is really going on.

One of my favorite iPhone apps is Congress Plus. It tracks all the representatives in Washington, what committees they serve on, and what legislation is moving through the process. Imagine mobile phone apps or social networking apps that made it easy for each of us to follow issues and causes that interest us — and give immediate feedback to our representatives.

Our Facebook application, We’re Related, has more than 15 million monthly active users. We can ask our users any question and within a day get 10-20,000 responses. Why doesn’t every elected official have a tool like this?

Perhaps the Sunlight Foundation could set up an instance of Uservoice (a powerful customer feedback tool) for every Congressional district in the country, so that citizens could interact with each other and vote on each other’s ideas–thereby helping set the legislative agenda for their representative. Currently, few citizens feel they have any voice at all.

I applaud efforts that can better inform and engage the citizenry in solving local and national problems. I am working towards becoming involved — hopefully for 20% of my workweek — as a citizen entrepreneur.

Motivated by Frustration

What motivates me is the same thing that is motivating millions of Americans to pay attention and take action: the realization that our government has failed us, and the remedies they put forth show that they are scared and flying blind–risking the future prosperity of our country in a rushed effort to fix everything. They seem uninformed by common sense and a knowledge of history. At this point, there are few people in Washington that I can trust.

I was extremely upset when the $700 billion TARP program was pushed through Congress in early October.  I think giving a single person (a former banker at that) authority to spend up to $700 billion buying toxic assets from big banks may have been the worst single decision in American legislative history.  Secretary Paulson had made millions in salary and bonuses (I have heard $110 million) while CEO of Goldman Sachs, which made a large percentage of their profits creating these derivatives/toxic assets which TARP was designed to take off these bank’s books. I’ve never seen a more eggregious example of the fox guarding the hen house in my life.

The “sky is falling” scare tactics that Paulson and Bernanke used behind closed doors with Senators and Congressman worked, and the big check was written. And now Pandora’s box has been opened and there is no end to the calls for bailouts and government stimulus of the economy.

With almost no legislative restraint on spending, our debts and deficits are growing so big that China, our largest creditor, is sending powerful signals that the day of US dollar dominance may soon come to an end. Recent Fed decisions to basically print more money will devalue our currency. High inflation may result. (Warren Buffett and China are both warning of this.) The central bank of China is now calling for a new global reserve currency.

The Treasury Department have used the TARP funds to invest in the big banks, rather than to take their toxic assets off their balance sheets, effectively nationalizing much of the banking industry. The toxic assets still exist, and the latest proposal from the Treasury Secretary caused a blip yesterday in the stock market, but really does nothing more than stimulate bankers and investors to excitement by letting them create another generation of potentially toxic assets — another trillion of securitized debt instruments with the federal government assuming most of the risk. Of course financial stocks will go up 20% in one day on news like that! “Hey guys, you get to do more of the same thing you were doing for the last few years, and make huge commissions and potentially huge profits for doing it. And we’ll take most of the risk.”

The whole affair makes me completely sick. While the initial TARP legislation was being debated, I registered my opposition by phone to my Senators. I’ve since taken time to meet in person with Senator Bennett and also had the opportunity to share a cab in NYC with freshman Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz. I flew to DC recently to meet with a staffer in Senator Hatch’s office. And I also met with a senior legislative assistant for North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, whose proposed legislation on derivatives back in 1994 may have prevented this global financial collapse.

I have found some tremendous books and articles by scholars and former derivatives traders that shed light on how the global meltdown happened. Some event predicted it. They clearly explain the role of unregulated derivatives in creating 1) the boom years, where the financial sector went from producing about 8% of S&P 500 profits to nearly 40%, 2) the feeling that this could go on forever because traders would offload risk through risk management best practices and 3) the systemic risk that has now triggered a massive domino effect in the global financial system.

The best book I have read so far about how all of this came about is “Infectious Greed,” by Frank Partnoy, a San Diego State University law professor and former derivatives trader. 

Books for Congress

For my 20% time I plan to organize an effort to get a copy of this book hand delivered to every member of Congress, by one of their respectable constituents. The author has just mailed me one or two boxes of hard copy versions. I met him through LinkedIn, and we had a great phone conversation recently. I know I can learn a lot more from him, after all the years of effort he has put into researching this incredibly complicated topic.

As I learn about the key players in the derivatives industry and in the decade-plus long fight over derivatives regulation, I have discovered that the world is smaller than ever before, and by using LinkedIn and other online tools like Google Alerts, I can either get introduced to people, or find out if they are speaking at some conference somewhere. 

A google alert on “Mark Brickell,” the former Chair of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, told me that he was speaking at an American Enterprise Institute debate in February.

From Partnoy’s book I had learned that Brickell was the key lobbyist who defeated congressional attempts to regulate derivatives in the 90s. I had to meet him. I needed to know if he was a good guy who was just misguided in his enthusiasm for completely unregulated OTC derivatives markets or if he was an evil guy who used deceptiveness and pressure and lies to persuade congress to stay out of the way of all the bankers and traders who have been making billions by creating and selling toxic assets all these years.

I flew to DC (I had business to do there anyway) and attended the AEI debate between Brickell and Christopher Whalen.

I spoke with Brickell afterwards, asked him a few questions, and got a feel for what kind of a person he is. 

I even asked him to sign my copy of “Infectious Greed,” (which does paint him as a villain), and he did. I twittered afterwards that this was like asking Voldemort to sign your copy of Harry Potter. Partnoy laughed when I told him about this.

The second most important book I’ve read is “Trillion Dollar Meltdown,” by Charles R. Morris, published in early 2008. His foresight is startling. I gave a copy of this book to Senator Bennett, but would like to raise money and purchase more copies for more members of Congress.

Another fascinating book that I am studying, and hoping to get rights (from the family) to deliver electronically to members of Congress, is “Beckoning Frontiers,” the memoirs of former Federal Reserve Chairman Marriner S. Eccles. (The Federal Reserve building in Washington, DC is named after him.)

Eccles wrote the book in 1951. It is a very honest and open assessment of the New Deal, with its successes and failures, written by the millionaire Utah banker that many considered its key architect.

If our government is spending trillions of dollars to try to stimulate the economy, shouldn’t we first each take a few hours, or days, or weeks, to study the programs of the 30s, and to learn from their architects and administrators which programs helped and which actually made the Great Depression worse?

Citizen Entrepreneurs Make a Difference

I appreciate citizens who serve in local government, or devote time to public service at any level. Some give much more than 20%. One of my Facebook friends this week noted that unfortunately, more and more of our citizens will soon have 100% time to devote to citizen involvement, as hundreds of thousands of jobs are lost every month.

What excites me the most, however, are citizen-led efforts to solve problems independent of government.

I was teaching Internet Marketing at BYU in fall 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without homes or power. A local entrepreneur wondered what he could do to help out all these victims. His wife encourage him to put his web design skills to work, so he did. In just a couple of marathon days, he built, which within a week had attracted listings for something like 114,000 available rooms in homes all across the country.

Meanwhile, most people just watched the news on TV and complained about the terribly slow response time from all the government relief agencies. Some people rolled up their sleeves and helped out.

Some people step forward and make a difference, like Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross in 1881. In September 1881 a great fire in Michigan left 5,000 people homeless. Clara Barton and the Red Cross stepped in to provide relief. Imagine how much good the Red Cross has done in the past century and a quarter! It was started by an activist citizen — not by the government.

Some citizen efforts are needed to provide relief for human suffering from local disasters, while some are needed to uncover corruption and fraud which indirectly hurts all of us. As I said, my obsession right now is unbridled, unregulated, out of control OTC derivatives trading, which Warren Buffett said in 2002 were “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

Not only did the Federal Government (including the SEC and CTFC) do nothing to stop these weapons from exploding, but they actually de-regulated them in the 90s, and prevented states from regulating them under state bucket laws (the 106th Congress voted for this) which had been created after the financial panic of 1907 to regulate pure gambling on the outcome of Wall Street ups and downs.

Other citizen led investigative-journalism type efforts can solve other problems. Patrick Byrne’s obsession with naked short selling led him to fund, a blog “examining the growing threat to our financial system posed by illegal naked short selling, stock manipulation, and the destruction of public companies.” 

Some haven’t taken Byrne seriously, but Bloomberg last week reported that Lehman Brothers may have failed because of naked short selling.

Billionaire Mark Cuban backs, the best site I’ve seen for tracking the use of the $700 billion in authorized TARP funds.

Next Steps

I’ve already spent most of my 20% time this week just working on this blog post, so forgive me if I leave it without a good conclusion or without the kind of organization I should give it.

I invite you to join me in the Facebook group Citizen 20% Time and I’d love for you to post a comment about what issue or problem you would personally like to tackle in your 20% time.

Perhaps if enough good ideas surface that can be effectively implemented with very small teams leveraging crowdsourcing of all kinds (like Wikipedia), we might be able to find financial sponsorship from someone like Pierre Omidyar or Mark Cuban or maybe the Google Foundation.

Cuban already announced his own stimulus package back in February — a private effort to fund the best open-source business ideas. Maybe he (or someone else) could apply that concept to non-profit non-partisan ideas from citizen entrepreneurs as well. We’ll never know unless we give it a try.

7 thoughts on “Solve Nation’s Problems with Citizen 20% Time

  1. As someone who has devoted a large chunk of my life devoted to understand how society works, I think part of what you are calling for is a bit silly. Trying to understand the financial crisis in 20% of your time, is like trying to solve string theory using 20% of your time. This isn’t something that can be solved by a part-time dilettante working out of his garage. I know it works in software, but I don’t think it works in understanding how society works. I agree that devoting 20% of your time to public service might make sense, but I just question many of your examples. And I worry that having people read up on some social issue for 2 hours a week will just create lots of people overconfident about their own opinion, but not really sufficiently well informed to make good decisions on these subjects.

  2. Excellent point, Ben.

    However, if we carry the Google 20% time example forward, remember that all the most promising 20% time projects at Google soon turn into full-time projects, and then start getting resources, and soon have sufficient resources to take them into the Labs, and then into Beta, and then into a full-blown launch, where millions of people can benefit from what started out as a pet project in one person’s imagination.

    My home is that citizen 20% time projects that are promising, will likewise attract attending, potential funding, and then turn into large group projects with sufficient resources to make a significant dent in local or national (or world) problems.

  3. I’d spend my 20% time trying to get bloggers to understand that Jimmy Wales didn’t “create” Wikipedia, nor is he accurately called “founder” of the project. I’d also spend some of that time educating bloggers about some of the corrupt practices and characteristics of the Wikimedia Foundation. For example, did you know the WMF is routing money directly to Wikia, Inc. (Jimmy Wales’ commercial, FOR-PROFIT company)?

  4. I actually do not agree with Ben Ho. That is an aristocratic way of thinking: “These issues are too complicated to be understood by plain folk. Leave them to us who have studied and are trained. We’ll take care of you. You just go back to your TV and if you want your voice be heard on something, vote on American Idol or Survivor, something you can handle.”
    I’m sick and tired of aristocrats in government telling me that I don’t understand. That is basically the attitude we’ve got from Sen. Bennett and Hatch about the TARP bailout. Even though they got 10 to 1 constituents opposing the bailout, they voted for it because they knew better than the rest of us.
    Of course, these are complicated issues, but Dave Ramsey, not a part-timer on financial success, proposed a common sense solution to the banking meltdown in October that even I could understand. Well, Bennett and Hatch preferred to listen to Bernanke and Paulson instead of Ramsey and thousands of their voters. See you at the elections!
    Paul, I applaud your proposal and enthusiasm. I, for my part, instead of just complaining about the quality of our educational system, am teaching community classes on Euclidean geometry and English-As-A-Second-Language during part of my 20% of the time.

  5. This isn’t something that can be solved by a part-time dilettante working out of his garage.

    This is why I advocate studying principles. The principles at work in the economic mess are actually quite easy to understand, and don’t require a lot of time. You can spend a lifetime studying all the minutiae that has occurred, but that won’t leave you with much wisdom regarding what to fix and how.

  6. Related post on the Sunlight Foundation:

    “But if you’re not keen on launching a banking 2.0 start-up at the moment, what’s one easy way a developer can start building the new economy and society we sorely need? Participate in the Open Government movement. A growing number of talented coders and designers are taking advantage of the data the government is beginning to make available and mashing it up in ways that make it accessible, useful, and meaningful to citizens, lawmakers, and any constituent you can imagine. “

  7. Great post as always. I’ve been waiting for a new one… I’d like to add that most brilliant things in history are done in someone else’s name… For most people who read this and want to be inspired, realize that it is equally valid to drive up the road and volunteer directly for and in the name of Patrick Byrne as it is to go make handwritten signs fighting naked short selling yourself. Shakespeare may have been a group of people, and Edison surely had 15 assistants we’ll never know the names of. I just don’t want people to be overwhelmed thinking they have to start something themselves, when there are people like Paul and all the people he mentioned who are rainmakers dreaming of someone to be their volunteer ISTJ secretaries. I’m always looking for people, and surely people are always looking for me, so don’t shy away if you don’t feel glowing is your core competency.

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