If no-one can hear us…

Last week was 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].

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “If no-one can hear us…”

  1. Pastor, actually.
    Pulpits are still important and unreconstructed channels of communication of complex ideas, some hermetic to the religious tradition, many more trying to interpret the world at the intersection of faith and reason, like Ecclesiastes. Time for a Journal of Public Policy And Theology?

    1. I can't read Michael's mind, of course, but I suspect he knew about Niemoller, and chose to shape his citation to fit his point about his colleagues in academe.

      In re: pulpits–I don't think Michael is correct that "The correct consumer price of digital content is its marginal cost, namely zero." If that were true, then the correct consumer price of a non-rush-hour subway ride would be zero. Rather, I think, the correct price of any good should be the marginal cost of production and delivery, plus the amortized cost of the investment for creation, production, and delivery.

      Amortizing the cost of creation, production, and delivery is devilishly complicated. And when the good is information (whether "real" or "fictional"), what you have characterized as the pulpit becomes a significant component of delivery cost that has to be covered by someone. Thus we have the Koch Brothers, who are willing to pay, and the public, who think the marginal cost of their consumption is zero, and therefore ought to be free, and are thus unwilling to pay the NY Times digital subscription price.

      A separate issue is whether the NY Times price is outrageously too high. Perhaps if it were five dollars per month, there would be a lot of consumers who would be more inclined to help the Times cover the cost of providing the "pulpit" for a lot of valuable information. But as a generalization, my guess would be that most consumers believe in the "marginal cost" paradigm, and would not be willing to cover their share of the cost of the pulpit.

  2. (1) Thanks, James; fixed.The evangelical megachurches' media operation are a good example of wealth co-opting content channels.
    (2) RhodesKen: Amortizing the fixed costs is exactly wrong for this kind of good: you wind up pricing at average cost and leaving all the consumers to the right of that point, who are happy to pay more than marginal cost, standing on the platform. The right fare off rush hour is a nuisance charge, maybe a quarter. If you try to get fixed costs at the farebox, you have our current situation in the Bay Area where two couples can drive from Berkeley to SF for a show and park for less than they would pay on the BART, while the train has empty seats.

  3. Aside from the question of how to pay for intellectual property (a problem that is quite near to my heart as I go through the process of self-publishing a novel), I have a personal bugaboo about lack of public policy awareness among the populace.

    As I've said before, I'm an enormous fan of women's collegiate ice hockey. (I haven't missed a Gopher league game, home or road, in more than two seasons.) This is a sport that simply wouldn't exist without Title IX and would be much diminished if Title IX disappeared. And yet, I would estimate that a solid majority of the parents of these athletes, and not a few of the athletes themselves, consistently vote for representatives that would cheerfully repeal it. There's a disconnect here that perplexes me.

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