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If no one can hear us …

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy | November 13, 2014

I recently attended the annual research conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. For those who do not frequent academic conferences, this is a get-together of people like me and several of yr. obdt. bloggers, where we break up into “sessions” of about an hour and a half, in each of which three or four people present recent research. A program committee of really noble souls puts these together out of proposals so they have some internal coherence: four papers about urban crime, or three about state pension accounting, and like that. Hour after hour of smart people saying more interesting things than you can possibly absorb.<

The outgoing APPAM president gives an address, on a topic of his or her choice, that is well-attended and subsequently published in the organization’s Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. This year we heard from one of my very favorite colleagues, Angela Evans, formerly of the Congressional Research Service and now at UT Austin scarfing up every teaching award in sight.

I thought it was an excellent talk about stuff on which Angela and I almost entirely agree, but at about 49:00 she has one of those moments professors anticipate with, um, qualified enthusiasm: in front of her whole tribe, and the world on YouTube, one of her own students asks an excellent question (heart leaps) to which she has only half of a good answer (heart palpitates): how is all this excellent policy analysis and research supposed to get to the public?

Angela has always been all over the need for pointy-heads to explain their stuff in languages people can understand, and not browbeat them with regression coefficients and the kind of technical stuff we play catch among ourselves with. But she didn’t say a word about  the most important current challenge to good governance in a democracy (and othercracies), namely the technology-driven collapse of the business model for diffusion and creation of content.

Why is my hair on fire about this? Well, if you remember how many journalists used to be employed with livable salaries by newspapers and magazines, and how many column inches of copy a big-city newspaper used to offer every day, and how many newspapers your town used to have, and when radio and TV news had more kinds of event than car crashes and murders, your hair should be on fire too.

Never mind that musicians who used to sell records can only make a living by live performances in large venues; just think about the results of the last election, and the profoundly uninformed state of the voters who happily sent so many of the insouciantly ignorant and smirkingly mendacious into government. People who hate the ACA with a burning passion, but love everything in it. People who learned that the climate isn’t changing from a local TV personality who recites weather forecasts. None of the policy issues that filled the APPAM conference halls is tractable without public deliberation, and deliberation is impossible if the facts and expertise have no outlet.

Content in the digital age is a non-rival public good, and public goods will only be provided by government, or by very rich people who selectively put out what they think is good for them, like Murdochs and their Koch pals. We are in the middle of a terrible tragedy, in which, for want of proper public policy, something as important as air, that technology could make free and abundant, is instead becoming scarce, rationed, and corrupted. The correct consumer price of digital content is its marginal cost, namely zero. This doesn’t mean we have to confiscate it from creators; we (correctly) pay for sidewalks and policing, and then (correctly) give them away, but we can only do that through government. How, without a Ministry of Information and Censorship? Time for some policy analysis!

Provoked by the exchange in Angela’s address, I dove into the conference program to see if anyone else in my business is worrying about this. With more than two hundred sessions, I came up completely empty looking for keywords like intellectual property, copyright, economics of media, and more. Nothing. We are more interested in finding out that  this or that targeted program increases reading scores by 5%, than whether those kids will ever have anything worth reading, or anyone on a school board can ever find out about it.

Academics are sheltered from the storm that is shredding publishing and broadcasting because we generally don’t depend on royalties, but are paid salaries, and we can get at content easily because our institutions have subscriptions to journals that charge others $25 and more just to see a single article.

Dear colleagues: the earth beneath our feet is crumbling. There is no more important policy analysis substrate than the economics and industrial organization of content, unless you want all the policies that really affect people to be shaped by people who can make money from them, while you read each other’s arcana.

And don’t think you will escape in the end: “first they came for the Socialists, but I was not a Socialist…”  cautions the German pastor [corr. 10/XI].

Cross-posted from The Reality-Based Community (tag line: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts).

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