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Tea Party Tech Policy

By 29 October 2010 One Comment

At The American, my one-time PFF colleague Garland McCoy and I ruminate on Tea Party Tech Policy.

The question that sets the piece in motion:

In the iconic ending of the 1972 film The Candidate, Robert Redford, just victorious in his Senate race, turns to his staff and asks, “What do we do now?”  If the polls tell us true, a lot of new members of Congress and their staffs-in-waiting are going to ask this question late on November 2.

From there, we go on, first, to consider the filters that should be applied to policy ideas in the Tea Party Era, and, then, to some specific suggestions that, in our joint view, make the cut.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors, and were not vetted by anyone at Digital Society or at Garland’s Technology Policy Institute, so they do not necessarily represent the position of either of these organizations. Of course, the qualification “necessarily” is necessary because there is always the chance that by some accident we have said something with which our colleagues agree.

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group, via The American.

One Comment »

  • Paul William Tenny said:

    Can I assume that we’re free to comment on that post over here, since comments aren’t allowed there? If not, please let me know and then feel free to delete this.

    I’m going to kind of gloss over the fact that the Tea Party Era isn’t an era since there’s nothing unique or distinctive about the Tea Party (it’s Republicans who don’t want to be associated with that name after the 2001-2008 debacle.)

    Instead, I’ll jump into this contradiction:

    1) The item must be good for America. [..]

    2) The agenda should eschew anything that looks like a plea to “just subsidize us.” […]

    One could argue that a specific instance of “just subsidize us” is bad for specific reasons, but there’s no law or rule I’m aware of that says that all instances of it are bad. A company’s message can look that way and yet subsidizing them can still be good for America. In fact you go on to make that argument to a degree in #2 for government R&D (which isn’t subsidization so much as it is investment, since the government gets direct returns for that money).

    #1 is the problem here. It’s not logical, it’s too subjective and ambiguous. There are a lot of things that are both good and bad for America at the same time, depending on who you ask and what that person’s interests are.

    If you ask the country if Medicare is good for America, most would say yes. If you ask a typical Tea Party supporter (who isn’t elderly), they’d say no.

    A “subsidize us” culture is great for consumers in rural areas who otherwise would be ignored by the private sector. It’s the only reason I have a phone line right now. For them, #2 is junk because that mantra satisfies #1 for them. Subsidization in many cases makes America better. It just doesn’t satisfy for libertarians, of which there are very few in this country.

    With both items in the proper context, #1 should have read “The item must satisfy the libertarian ideology”, because that’s the only way they work together without such logical inconsistencies.

    3) Agenda items must be specific. No calls for abstractions or for vague and unspecified plans or strategies.

    Why do other people’s agendas have to be specific? The first filter is the very definition of vague and unspecific. It’s a wild card that allows the reader to throw out anything they want for invalid and superficial reasons.

    I support #3, don’t get me wrong. But it’s hypocritical in light of #1.

    4) The agenda must reflect the mood of the Tea Parties, …

    That conflicts, again, directly with #1. There are Tea Party agendas that can be and are bad for America. And there are agendas that the TP opposes that are good for America, satisfying #1, but violating #4.

    You’re trying to set tech policy by filtering out anything that doesn’t meet ideological requirements. That’s how you get horrible tech policy.

    ..which is one of great faith in American civilization..

    That’s pretty petty and divisive. Don’t all Americans regardless of ideology have great faith in “American civilization”, whatever that is supposed mean?

    I get that you’re discussing tech policy through the filter of a specific group of people (that aren’t so specific or unique in reality), but is it really necessary to glorify them like that (and demean everyone else) when it has nothing to do with the subject at hand?

    ..but extending to such other elite bastions as the press and the universities.

    I figured this was going to be heavy on GOP politics and light on tech policy, but I didn’t think you’d digress into class warfare so blithely.

    If you want to talk about elitism, look in the mirror. It’s comments like that which divide people and foster resentment. And it certainly has nothing to do with technology or political policy.

    The recommendations must sidestep this controversy by focusing on unleashing the genius of the people, not on empowering the government or its dependents.

    Again, filter #4 violates #1. Empowering government “or its dependents” can be good for America. #4 is entirely made up of conservative political views and places artificial ideological constraints on tech policy that have nothing to do with reality. It’s not reasonable by any measure.

    5) The agenda should avoid parroting industry or think tank talking points.

    Good on paper, but also violates #1 to a degree. Just because something is a talking point (regardless of where it came from) doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad. I’m sure that at some point in time, the call for equal rights for African Americans was considered a talking point. Cutting taxes – which in some situations works well and has merit and in other situations can be destructive and stupid – is considered a talking point. “Create jobs” is getting there, as most talking points do before they become talking points.

    But those three things in this context are things that — according to you — should be avoided simply because they are talking points.

    I like where your head is on a lot of these filters James, but they are riddled with fundamental logical flaws. I see problems like this all the time and they are almost always the result of not thinking things through.

    People set out to explain things by expressing their thoughts as clearly as possible without going the extra mile to figure out if those thoughts even make sense when held up to scrutiny.

    This semi-rigid list of filters meant to exclude or include tech policy carries a common theme: specificity. Only the first item on the list is as ambiguous as you can possibly get. So #1 is a good example of the kinds of flaws that pop up throughout the entire story.

    Where strong interests conflict, the focus should be on addressing the prisoner’s dilemma deadlocks that prevent cooperation and synergism.

    Sorry to nitpick, but you linked to another story of yours for “prisoner’s dilemma” which then linked to a book for sale on Amazon. I didn’t know what that term referred to, and I was annoyed at having to go to a third page to find out what it meant, only to find out I’d have to buy a book to get the answer.

    You probably should have just linked to the Wiki page, if you wanted people to know what that is.

    It’s an interesting dilemma but as I’m sure has been pointed out since the day it was suggested, any analogy that explains it probably falls apart due to unaccountable variables, rendering the dilemma inapplicable to reality and therefore pointless. It assumes a fixed number of predetermined outcomes for fixed number of predetermined actions, which isn’t the way that real life works.

    In fact the dilemma completely falls apart without such rigid, unrealistic constraints, without even applying it to a real life situation.

    Different motives and goals will lead to different behavior. Every “deadlock” is different, in other words. The cause, the duration, and the possible outcomes all vary. Especially when you’re talking about 535 individuals interacting, instead of just two.

    Pretending that all deadlocks in Congress are a simple manifestation of the prisoner’s dilemma because of the existence of two controlling parties completely ignores the interactions of all the individuals, and their goals, motives, and what they believe are acceptable outcomes.

    Artificially pushing the focus towards inapplicable theoretical models that fall apart when applied to real situations they weren’t meant to explain is only going to make things worse, I’m afraid.

    Remove the barriers to repatriation of profits earned overseas.

    I’m not sure what you mean, can you explain that in a bit more detail?

    Make the R&D tax credit permanent. (This avoids the “no subsidy” filter because it recognizes that R&D is, and must be, a leaky expenditure that produces public goods as well as private benefits, and the tax credit is a way to support R&D while still leaving decisions in the invisible hands of the free market.)

    To the contrary, it meets the definition of subsidy (and hence excluded by the filter) pretty darn well: “A grant paid by a government to an enterprise that benefits the public

    It only avoids the subsidy filter because you want it to. Make an exception if you want, I have no problem with that generally as I expect that most people understand the value and necessity of exceptions, but don’t pretend that your second agenda item magically avoids a filter that it fits perfectly just because you don’t want it to.

    Tell the truth here. Item #2 violates filter #2, but that’s ok for X and Y reasons. That’s entirely possible and reasonable if X and Y actually justify an exception.

    I think you’d have been better off arguing that a tax credit isn’t a subsidy, instead of just ignoring your own filter to sneak in an agenda item that seemingly violates it.

    Reform immigration policy

    I agree with that kind of reform, although it seems to violate filter #5, since this is a huge industry talking point (which is why filter #5 was such a bad idea, as I already explained.)

    Ratify outstanding trade agreements and defend free trade generally. The solution to global imbalances is to improve our own performance, not to handicap others.

    Many people traditionally on your side of the ideological fence have argued that free trade is bad for America, and their arguments are persuasive. That means agenda #4 violates filter #1: it’s bad for America. It is however good for corporations, which explains why it’s on your list.

    In fact 1-4 on the agenda list can all be categorized as being good for Big Business, which is probably why everything ends up on this list. I bet that will be a recurring theme.

    Increase the availability of spectrum to ensure that mobile broadband can continue its remarkable advances.

    Good idea that I support, but it doesn’t seem to satisfy filter #4 since I’ve never heard the Tea Party talk about technology outside of net neutrality (mainly parroting GOP leadership talking points which is basically all the Tea Party does and exists to do), much less expanding available wireless spectrum.

    Again, this illustrates why filters 4 and 5 really don’t make sense and had no business being in a discussion about good technology policy. They unduly interfere with the discussion by injection politics into a non-political industry.

    Reverse the funding and regulatory imbalance by which the government forces every student into the round hole of a conventional four-year or two-year college curriculum, no matter what shape peg the student happens to be. We need a wide diversity in approaches that allows for trade and vocational education, private educational institutions, and life-long learning, not just conventional college.

    Interesting idea, but violates filter #3 (“Agenda items must be specific”) and #4; I’ve heard absolutely nothing about this from the Tea Party “movement” and so it doesn’t seem to reflect their “mood”. In fact I’ve not heard it from anyone but you.

    Recognize as a chimera the assumption that the United States will produce “knowledge” while other nations produce actual products. We need to reduce barriers of all kinds to the production of actual things. (Note: This avoids the “no generalities” filter only because it specifies a goal.)

    It clearly violates filter #3 because of “vague and unspecified plans or strategies”. #3 says nothing about goals being an exception. “Agenda items must be specific”. This isn’t specific, it’s intentionally vague.

    “..reduce barriers of all kinds to the production of actual things” doesn’t even specify what things being produced need to have barriers reduced, much less which barriers to reduce and how.

    Make effective use of existing ITC to a) improve government efficiency and eliminate waste…

    Violates filter #3 for being vague and unspecific and #5 for being a boilerplate GOP talking point. I support it, however, as most people would. But like most people I’d want specifics, and you haven’t provided any.

    Our system of intellectual property protection was created under very different technological conditions. We need a clean-sheet revision of copyright law to reflect the modern ITC era, one that protects creators while making works broadly available and lowering transaction costs, and we need a break in the deadlock over patent reforms

    Wholeheartedly agree that we need reform, but probably not in the direction that you want (software patents need to go.). But it violates filter #3 for being unspecific and vague, #4 for having nothing to do with what the Tea Party is talking about politically/ideologically. I’ve not once heard the Tea Party talk about this topic.

    Net neutrality: …

    Violates filter #1 in my personal opinion (anti-net neutrality is bad – devastating really – for America), perhaps better illustrating why filter #1 is junk, as opposed to why this agenda item is problematic.

    Props for avoiding talking points and hitting something that the Tea Party pretends to care about.

    For what it’s worth, I think the FCC should move forward hard and fast on net neutrality policies that do what they can to preserve market independence and efficiency, while making a stable and open Internet for consumers its top priority. If in service of the latter, the former must take a hit, then so be it. When consumers can’t do with the Internet what they want, all the money making pyramid schemes cooked up by Big Business will fall apart before they ever get off the ground because nobody will want to use it anymore.

    A lot of what George Ou has written on this site on that topic makes sense to me. Network stability and usability should come first and foremost. But he and I, I suspect, diverge after that point, where I believe net neutrality principals should come into play. It seems important not to let net neutrality micromanage the network so much that common sense management practices become regulated by the state. But deals like the one between Verizon and Google should be prohibited. They benefit those two enormously powerful and rich companies while harming consumers who will end up having to pay even more money for access to some content because of artificial constraints that would exist solely for the purpose of making money.

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That spat between Cablevision and FOX where FOX pressured Hulu to shut off access to free FOX content to Cablevision *broadband* subscribers is precisely the crap net neutrality supporters have been warning all of you about for the past couple of years.

    If the people – and by extension Congress – disagree and want regulation to go a different direction, they are free to reverse anything the FCC does legislatively at any time they see fit. The FCC is a partisan federal agency, just like every other. It’s job is to carry out the communications policy of the President, and we have a president that was elected by publicly supporting net neutrality.

    If the free markters don’t like it, too bad. They lost in 2008. They’ll get another chance in 2012 and will just have to wait.

    Other systems: […] All these need protection against raids by special interests.

    Who do you mean by special interests? You’re referring to unions, consumer advocacy groups, basically everybody but extremely powerful corporate lobbyists, right?

    So much for the first amendment and free markets, and all that.

    Violates a basic tenant of conservative ideology (government protectionism of private industry) unless I’m reading that wrong; and violates filter #3 for being unspecific and vague, and #4 for being something that the Tea Party hasn’t talked about and seems disinterested in on every level.

    The policy of making energy expensive needs to be reversed; we should focus on making it cheap. We should confess to the uncertainties about climate change and avoid irrevocable commitments while the issue is examined, and restore honesty to the research system.

    Solidly violates filter #3 for being unspecific and vague.

    If you weren’t going to propose specific solutions, you shouldn’t have required them. If your intent was to substitute specific solutions for goals, you should have said that in filter #3. But you didn’t, so it appears that almost all of your agenda items suffer from the same maddening flaws as everyone else’s: no specific ideas, just high minded talk.

    Your own rules eliminate basically every single agenda item.

    IMHO you would have been better off without the filters to begin with. With them, it’s just one giant mess.