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Democracy: Publish or perish

In the old days, when bailouts were something only skydivers did, the government required each bank to publish in its local newspaper an annual report of its condition, including assets, liabilities, and capital reserves.

Not everyone read the notices, of course, but a few sharp-eyed depositors, upon finding the reports in their newspapers, always took time to go over them and learn just how strong their banks were. The word spread from there.

One wonders whether the current banking crisis would have reached such extremes if the government had not stopped requiring banks to regularly publish their balance sheets where average readers could stumble across them.

Government insiders like to call public notices wastes of money. They want to give the public less information and put what they do provide in junk mail or on obscure Web sites, where only a tiny minority who have access and know what to look for will ever find them.

Hiding information from we, the people who pay the bills for government and the industries it charters, regulates, and subsidizes, is contrary to the principles on which this country was founded.

Let your legislators and congressmen know that you miss the notices that used to be published. Ask for more, not fewer, notices — things like agendas for upcoming meetings, lists of each line-item expenditure by local governments, and unabridged copies of all legislation. Demand that these be published as they used to be, where average readers can peruse them during regular reading of their hometown newspapers.

The best way to end shadowy practices by government and industry is to expose them to the sunlight of free and unfettered public access. Don’t end it. Expand it.

Tell your elected officials you want to watch what they and the businesses they watch are doing. Remind them that we end up paying more by being kept in the dark than we would ever have to pay to publish information where citizens can see it.

Last modified June 11, 2009

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