“Email: Be concise and to the point. Don’t make emails longer than they should be. People use email to save time, so writing your magnus opus in an email message will probably irritate people. As a general guideline, try to keep emails shorter than five sentences.”—The Art of Manliness - Guide to being a gentleman in 2008
In the last issue of The New Republic, Lawrence Lessig published the unfortunately titled article “Against Transparency.” In it he criticizes what he calls the “naked transparency movement.”* The article has drawn several responses, with Ellen Miller and Michael Klein’s being the best and most direct. I’d like to offer a libertarian perspective.
Lessig’s thesis is that the revolution in government transparency that modern information technology makes possible is a double-edged sword because what it uncovers is simply the general corruptibility of government—and he speaks of Congress in particular. Tools like MAPLight.org show that there is a strong correlation between campaign contributions and legislative votes. Some of these may indeed be corrupt bargains, and some may not. But the fact is that “the contributions are corrupting the reputation of Congress, because they raise the question of whether the member acted to track good sense or campaign dollars.”
Because citizens are prone to rational ignorance (although Lessig insists on relabeling the concept “lack of attention-span”), they will not investigate individual votes or other actions very deeply, and they will unfairly ascribe a certain susceptibility to influence to all in Congress. As a result, the naked transparency movement won’t inspire reform, but instead “will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.” Lessig writes:
>At this time the judgment that Washington is all about money is so wide and so deep that among all the possible reasons to explain something puzzling, money is the first, and most likely the last, explanation that will be given. It sets the default against which anything different must fight. And this default, this unexamined assumption of causality, will only be reinforced by the naked transparency movement and its correlations. What we believe will be confirmed, again and again.
His solution? “A system of publicly funded elections would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money.” Take the money out of politics, Lessig argues, and you also take away the cynicism that forestalls change.
Lessig’s solution reminds me of airline regulation in the 60s and 70s. Prices where set by government, so airlines were forced to compete on other margins. First came the elaborate meals, then the in-flight bar lounges and later piano bars, and then “the musicians, magicians, wine-tasters, and Playboy bunnies.”
Take the “money out of politics” and interest groups will similarly compete on other margins. They already do. Lobbying is a $3.2 billion industry without counting campaign contributions. Interests seek influence in many ways besides giving money:
hiring lobbyists on call to simply show up at critical times
spending great sums of money on research to support their cause
non-monetary perks for members of Congress and their staffs
organizing to knock on doors and get out the vote
As long as citizens continue to be rational and ignore the minutiae of every bill and spending decision that Congress makes, Congress will be successfully influenced by organized interests, direct money contributions or no. That’s why it’s called public choice.
However you slice it, Lessig is correct that one likely outcome of increased transparency will be that citizens will grow to have less faith in government. And it’s not for lack of context or lack of better institutional design. The fact is that as long as Congress has as much power as it has—as long as it can vote to spend billions of dollars to bail out failing banks and auto companies, provide huge subsidies for ethanol, or maintain a giant military complex for foreign adventures—there will be those who will seek to influence Congress. Rules of thumb often emerge because they work, so there may be some usefulness after all for the popular heuristic that Lessig finds so distasteful: “Washington is all about money.”
There are many of us in the transparency movement who have little faith in government. We fight for transparency precisely because we believe that by removing the covers off of our political system will our fellow citizens understand why we are justified in having such little faith. Maybe if faith in government is driven “over the cliff” will citizens demand the only reform that can withstand influence: less government. Less government means less power to grant goodies, which in turn means special interests will have less to fight for and therefore, hopefully, there will be less corruptibility. Less government also means more power to individuals who have no “lack of attention-span” for their own personal interests.
* Luckily for me, Lessig noted in his article that “Without a doubt, the vast majority of these transparency projects make sense. In particular, management transparency, which is designed to make the performance of government agencies more measurable, will radically improve how government works.” That is the topic of a newly released paper [PDF] that I co-authored with Drew Perraut, at which I hope you’ll take a look. ↩
Last month I wrote about the imminent release of raw stimulus spending data and said that the jury was still out on the Obama Administration’s transparency pledge. Well, we’re now pretty close to a verdict, and it’s not good.
On Thursday, Recovery.gov added reports from the recipients of stimulus dollars—contractors and grantees explaining what money they got, what they’re doing with it, and who they have subcontracted. At Stimulus Watch we immediately got into the data looking to build the next version of our service, but soon found it was almost hopeless.
Recipient reports are offered in CSV format, which is not the most elegant way to present the data. Worse, the Recovery.gov “Download Center" offers three files for each state—one for prime recipients awards, one for sub-awards, and one for vendor awards—which means you have to piece them all together to do nationwide analysis. First, as far as I can tell, all vendor awards files are empty. Second, what we immediately wanted to do was tie the sub-awards to the primary awards (i.e. tie the subcontractors to the main contractor), but found no unique ID that could bind them together. Even worse, many of the data fields are inscrutable, and no glossary was provided.
Finally, while the agency reports of the money they’re doling out includes both the address of the contractor and the address of the project itself, the recipient reports only include the contractor’s address. In order to let citizens know what recovery projects are in their neighborhoods, however, we need to know the place of performance, not simply the construction company’s address, for example.
Others have also panned the release on data quality and other issues. This is not the “unprecedented” level of transparency and accountability that we have been promised, and it’s certainly not what I expect from an $8 million website. Vice President Biden, in charge of ensuring recovery transparency, should take notice and take action.
There are many of us in the developer community who want to help make possible the thousands of “citizen IGs" that Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board Chair Earl Devaney has touted. In order to do that, though, we need the data, and this isn’t cutting it.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Ronald Coase’s seminal article, The Federal Communications Commission. Coase’s critique of the political allocation of radio spectrum, and his arguments for achieving efficient allocation by allowing the government to sell rights to the spectrum, has had a profound effect on the course of communications policy.
While Coase’s ideas have been vindicated, and a market in radio property has developed, what impact have they had on the FCC? What is Coase’s legacy, and how salient are his ideas for the future of spectrum allocation? A distinguished set of speakers will address these questions at the event, “Ronald Coase’s The Federal Communications Commission at 50,” co-hosted by The Mercatus Center at George Mason University and The Progress & Freedom Foundation.
Opening remarks will be given by Commissioner Robert M. McDowell of the Federal Communications Commission. The remarks will be followed by a panel discussion on the themes presenting in the landmark book. Participants will include:
Prof. Thomas W. Hazlett, George Mason University School of Law
Dr. Jeffrey A. Eisenach, Empiris LLC & George Mason University School of Law
Dr. Evan Kwerel, Federal Communications Commission
John Williams, Federal Communications Commission (invited)
“Ronald Coase’s The Federal Communications Commission at 50,” will be held Thursday, October 29th from 9:00am to 12:00pm in Hazel Hall, Room 121 (ground floor) at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington. Please RSVP after the jump.
Michael S. Sawyer, a fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, discusses the impact of the DMCA on user-generated content. The discussion also turns to the principle of fair use and competing solutions for dealing with copyright infringements on user-generated content sites.
In his latest Slate column, Tim Wu endorses a modified Google Books Search settlement because he fears that without such a deal—through which a giant like Google gets a de facto monopoly—we will never see an online library that includes orphan works and out-of-print books. He writes:
Books in strong demand, whether old (Dracula) or contemporary (Never Let Me Go), are in print and available no matter what happens. … The Google Book Search settlement makes it easier to get books few people want, like the Windows 95 Quick Reference Guide, whose current Amazon sales rank is 7,811,396, or The Wired Nation, which in 1972 predicted a utopian age centered on cable television. These are titles of enormous value for research and that appeal to a certain type of obsessive. Yet they are also unlikely to be worth much money.
And this, I hope, makes clear my point. A delivery system for books that few people want is not a business one builds for financial reasons. Over history, such projects are usually built not by the market but by mad emperors. No bean counter would have approved the Library of Alexandria or the Taj Mahal.
I’m curious how Prof. Wu can square that with what he wrote in his Slate review of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail in 2006:
The products in the Long Tail are less popular in a mass sense, but still popular in a niche sense. What that means is that some businesses, like Amazon and Google, can make money not just on big hits, but by eating the Long Tail. They can live like a blue whale, growing fat by eating millions of tiny shrimp. …
What are the Long Tail’s limits? As a business model, it matters most 1) where the price of carrying additional inventory approaches zero and 2) where consumers have strong and heterogeneous preferences. When these two conditions are satisfied, a company can radically enlarge its inventory and make money raking in the niche demand. This is the lifeblood of a handful of products and companies, Apple’s iTunes, Netflix, and Google among them, all of which are basically in the business of aggregating content. It doesn’t cost much to add another song to iTunes—having 10,000 songs available costs about the same as having 1 million. Moreover, people’s music preferences are intense—fans of Tchaikovsky aren’t usually into Lordi.
Scanning books is expensive, but not so expensive that we need the government or a regulated utility provider (as Wu suggests) to do it. If a fair use exemption or other workaround was available, I’m sure we’d see more than one competitor jump into the space. Like Prof. Wu understood in 2006, and as Google knows now, there is lots of money to be made in hyper-narrow niches.
Cross-posted from Surprisingly Free. Leave a comment on the original article.