This week marks Twitter’s 5th birthday, and Thursday, along with @adamthierer, I’m teaching a little introductory seminar at work on how to use the service. It’s a boon to anyone who’s job revolves around consuming and producing ideas and information, so it should be a no-brainer that most working in policy should be on it. But any time the subject comes up, skeptical rumblings resound.
Some of the folks we’ll be talking to are Twitter veterans and may be looking to share their own experience or pick up a pro tip, others are new to Twitter and have recently opened accounts, or don’t have accounts but are eager to learn. But then there are the folks, a bit older I have to say, who just aren’t interested.
Some are plain dismissive, in the “What do I care what someone had for breakfast” vein. Others seem overwhelmed and look at Twitter as one more damned thing they have to learn and manage. To them it’s a burden, not a benefit. Here’s a comment from an old post of Tyler’s on the same subject:
Personally, I dislike twitter because it becomes yet another thing that requires upkeep and saps attention from other projects.
There are only so many hours in the day, and I find social networks/e-mail/blackberries jarring and distracting. It outweighs any benefits I can imagine.
Looking back at what I first wrote about Twitter three years ago this month, I too was skeptical at first. Once I started using it, though, there was no looking back. It’s interesting that I wrote that I had “started to force myself to use Twitter to see if I can discover why people find it so compelling.” I guess only then did it seem obvious.
So how do one get skeptical folks to try it? Should one?
To the dismissive folks, I think the key is to explain that Twitter is a tool and it therefore can be used for good or ill. It can be used to only follow pop divas, or it can be used to follow the news, spread ideas, and have debates with other academics. I’m less sure what to say to the folks who answer, “Sure, but I already do that over email, research papers, op-eds, live debates, etc.” Simply answering that this is the new thing is not enough.
I think the immediacy of it is part of the answer, but that just further conjures up the image of another info-torrent one has to deal with. I think one way to answer is that just as Twitter has come on the stage as something new to deal with, mail, faxes, and even telephone calls have exited the stage. More importantly, though, is that Twitter is the kind of beast that doesn’t lend itself to an accurate personal cost-benefit analysis until one has used it. Its value is not easily understood from the outside.
So a little help, please. How do you take a 50-year-old who doesn’t use RSS feeds and get her to monitor a Twitter client? Is it even advisable?
Many folks will no doubt be writing a lot about the competitive issues surrounding the announced AT&T/T-Mobile merger, so instead I thought I’d weigh in on what I know best: spectrum.
To the extent you’re worried about the concentration of the wireless market, you should really be concerned about the government policies that make entry and expansion so difficult.
First, if a carrier wants to acquire more spectrum to meet consumer demand for new services, it can’t thanks to the artificial scarcity created by federal policies that dedicate vast swaths of the most valuable spectrum to broadcast television and likely inefficient government uses. It’s gratifying to see the FCC now confronting the “spectrum crunch,” but waiting for a deal to be brokered on incentive auctions is a luxury carriers don’t have. So, buying a competitor might be the only way left for them to acquire more spectrum.
Second, if a carrier wants to put up a new tower, or add antennas to existing towers, it has to get permission from the local zoning board. This can be an extremely onerous process as different localities will have different reasons to hold up the process. Buying a competitor is therefore also an obvious way to get access to more towers.
Again, I’m not sure this merger will have a negative effect on competition. Many high sunk costs industries are perfectly competitive with just two or three players. (I’m look forward to a good analysis on that question, perhaps from our own Geoff Manne of Josh Wright.) What I do know is that if you are worried about competition, antitrust policy is not going to solve the long-term issue of artificial scarcity, which is the real problem here.
Entry is possible. In fact, a new entrant in the wireless market is waiting in the wings in the form of the cable industry with the spectrum they acquired in the AWS auction. Before they can start offering services, however, they must move incumbent users of the bands they acquired. There is also Clearwire, part owned by Comcast, Time Warner, and Google—serious competitors to the Bells.
If we really got serious about reallocating broadcast and inefficiently used federal spectrum, we might not have to worry competition. We’d likely see new entry, and access to spectrum would be less of a reason to acquire a competitor.
Hayden: Less secrecy for a public conversation on cybersecurity
One of the arguments I’ve been making about proposed cybersecurity regulation and legislation is that despite a lot of hype about a massive online threat, there is little evidence to corroborate the dire warnings. Almost every article I’ve read revealing a breach or cyberattack only quotes anonymous government sources, then defense contractors and politicians point to these articles and proclaim, “If you only knew what we know, you’d be taking action now!”
Fear, however, is poor driver of public policy. Before we start telling private companies how to run their security, we should analyze the threat and asses whether there is a legitimate concern and whether government could do a better job. That’s impossible as long as most evidence of a threat is classified.
So I’m glad to see former NSA and CIA chief Gen. Michael Hayden call for less secrecy in order to get better analysis. In the new issue of Startegic Studies Quartley, he writes [PDF]:
Let me be clear: This stuff is overprotected. It is far easier to learn about physical threats from US government agencies than to learn about cyber threats. In the popular culture, the availability of 10,000 applications for my smart phone is viewed as an unalloyed good. It is not—since each represents a potential vulnerability. But if we want to shift the popular culture, we need a broader flow of information to corporations and individuals to educate them on the threat. To do that we need to recalibrate what is truly secret. Our most pressing need is clear policy, formed by shared consensus, shaped by informed discussion, and created by a common body of knowledge. With no common knowledge, no meaningful discussion, and no consensus … the policy vacuum continues. This will not be easy, and in the wake of WikiLeaks it will require courage; but, it is essential and should itself be the subject of intense discussion. Who will step up to lead?
Who indeed. Congress may be getting secret briefings that outline a potential cyberthreat. If they are, they should recognize that they may be only getting one view of the issue. Also, the people on whose behalf they are legislating also deserve to have a clear understanding of the risks against which Congress might legislate. “Trust us,” is not good enough. By reducing the over-classification Hayden writes about, Congress could allow economists, computer scientists, and other academics delve into the weeds of determine what is the true nature of the threat and whether a market failure exists that calls for government intervention.
The purpose of taxes is to raise money for necessary governmental functions. To that end, economists frequently prescribe that rates be low and broad in order to minimize the impact on consumers’ behavior — so-called tax neutrality. This is because taxation should be about raising revenue, not changing behavior.
Some economists tweak this prescription through the Ramsey Rule, which holds (in a nutshell) that the more influenced by tax rates consumers are (demand elasticity) the less something should be taxed (and vice versa).
Sin taxes are the opposite; they’re about reducing a behavior that policy makers judge to be morally offensive (like many people view smoking).
Relatedly, Pigouvian taxes seek to bring the costs to society (the social cost) in line with the costs born by a buyer. (For instance, some people advocate higher alcohol taxes on the theory that drinkers impose costs on others, though this argument is fraught with difficulties.)
Cell phone taxes above regular sales taxes levied by states and localities do not fit any of the four rationales provided here. On the one hand, taxing them at over twenty percent of a user’s bill is hardly neutral. Nor does it likely fit the Ramsey Rule prescription; consumers respond to cell phone taxes by buying less of it or by avoiding taxes by pretending to move. (Just look around you at how consumer takeup and use of cell phones has changed as prices have fallen over the last decade.) Cell phones are not sinful or offensive. And there’s no serious case to be made that the social cost of cell phones exceeds the cost born by users. In short, by any principle of public finance, high cell phone taxes are a bad bad bad idea.
Now here’s hoping he takes this awesome analysis and turns it into a paper!
With all the attention on net neutrality this week, I thought I’d bring your attention to a debate on the-issue-that-won’t-go-away between Tom Hazlett and Tim Wu, which took place earlier this year at Harvard Univerisity. Below is the MP3 audio of the event, but if you want to check it out in living color, check out the video at the Information Economy Project wabsite.