Doing Democracy: Ten Thoughts about Using Social Media for Policy Change in Canada

So you have a social cause that you want to promote online. Some media attention would be nice, but even better would be if you had a Twitter hashtag trend across the world, or if you had your heartwarming promotional video trend on Upworthy. If only a large part of the voting population could hear what you have to say, the government would only have to listen, wouldn’t they?

There exists an unfortunate assumption among those who engage in online social activism that public attention is always a good thing and that nothing will ever change unless the whole world knows about it. The media in particular feeds this idea partly because it actually does benefit from attention (because advertising revenue) but that’s not entirely fair. Journalists are professionals after all, and there is a long standing value throughout history that the media is there to support the ‘little guy.’ And, even in the age where traditional media is in a period of slow decline, the media’s main tool is drawing attention to social problems.

But attention is a pretty blunt instrument. Once unleashed on the world, it is quite difficult to control. For example, there is a story I told a ways back in my TedX talk about Social networks and public policy. As part of a consultation for the new Halifax Central Library we got people together in the Foggy Goggle to knit a yarn bomb. A co-conspirator decided to place the invitations to the consultations by adding clothespins and string to the piece. What happened next was amazing – people added candy, lovenotes, stories, cartoons etc to those clothespins – it was beautiful.

We posted it on YouTube and amazingly it found itself on the YouTube front page. However, unlike the response from Haligonians, the response from YouTubers was mostly hate. We were criticized for the aesthetics of the piece, for being hippies, for not giving the yarn wrap as a blanket for homeless people and so on. This is an example of what Maarten Hajer calls “multiplicities” in his great book Authoritative Governance. A message that makes a ton of sense to one audience will totally bomb with another. This usually has to do with the base assumptions of different networks. In short, attention — even positive attention — is unlikely to move policy makers unless it is somehow connected to power. So, if you want to create policy change, you need to think about how your particular social movement will be connected to power. So, I came up with ten thoughts on how you might do this. This is not backed by research, it is only some conjecture based on my reading and observation.

  1. Anger is a resource, but not a solution: It is true that there are things in the world that make us angry, and it is excellent advice to say that if you are angry, then that is a time to think about doing something about it. Usually, this means express your anger to your social networks. Often, anger can be contagious, and start the conversation. But then what? Anger is kind of like sugar. Sugar is great, but almost no one wants to eat it on its own. You have to bake it into something inspiring. How about actually looking at the existing policy that is making you mad and re-writing it the way you think it should be?
  2. Coalitions, coalitions, coalitions: So it turns out that you are on the wrong side of the current pendulum swing. You can trend your topic all you want, the government is probably just going to ignore you. However, maybe you can connect with groups that have some similar beliefs. These groups can come from odd places. For instance, radical feminists and social conservatives, who are frequently on different sides on the abortion debate, tend to have common beliefs when it comes to such things as victim’s rights and access to pornography. Thinking broadly about where your allies might be (even temporarily) can help your ideas find their way into even an ideologically opposite government.
  3. Governments Don’t Always Respond to Problems: The truth is that there are no end to the number of problems that governments could respond to. Pointing out that a problem exists is not enough to make government move. One view of how this all works comes from John Kingdon and others. The idea is that problems, solutions and power all happen in different places — it’s not until these things connect that you begin to see change. Kingdon argues that these connections occur during “policy windows” (ie. attention-getting events). So, that’s what you ought to be trying to do during a protest, or tragic event – try to connect the problem with possible solutions and groups who may have the resources to encourage the public to change.
  4. If it Catches On, Someone is Going to Represent Your Cause: Despite all the rhetoric that online media “democratizes” information because it gives citizens their own platforms to publish, the reality is that a very small number of people, perhaps only one, is going to become the representative for your cause. This doesn’t necessarily happen because someone is a tyrant or power-hungry, but because we all only have so many people we can pay attention to in the long run. And when given a choice, why wouldn’t we just go with the most popular opinion. One example is the role Michael Geist plays in representing the more “open” side of Canadian copyright law. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s a very knowledgeable lawyer and professor. This natural thing to happen in social networks can be a problem however, because it makes your cause look like a one person bandwagon. It is a good thing to think about how you can get multiple people’s voices in your network.
  5. The ‘Boomerang Effect’ is a Thing:  From Keck and Sukkink’s Activists Without Borders, the boomerang effect refers to the way social movements can use international groups to enact social change. We see this somewhat with the Northern Gateway and Keystone Pipeline situations. The Athabaska peoples do not have a great amount of power to go up against the oil industry and a generally energy-positive government. However, using environmental networks in the US, they have managed to get considerable support for their cause with Canadian rock star Neil Young putting his celebrity behind it, and Leonardo DiCaprio using his ALS Ice Bucket Challenge moment to highlight the importance of treaty rights.
  6. Homophily is a Thing: Homophily is a persistent trait of social networks. It means the tendency for people of like ethnicity, gender, race, class etc. to tend to want to be together. It can also refer, but to a lesser extent, to policy beliefs. This means that just because your cause got a lot of pickup from social media does not mean it has saliency across the board. You should not let your collective excitement and “me too-isms” make you overconfident. There are others in other places thinking completely different things about the issue. You might want to try and connect to them and see if there is any common ground.
  7. Arguments are a Thing: I get how memes and slogans help to get a broad message across. The number of things I see followed by a comment like “this is just so true!” is just a little bit frustrating, because often, with even just a little bit of research, it is easy to find exceptions to the rule. As you will see in point #8, memes have their place – but be ready with a solid argument to defend your position. It is at the solid argument stage where you will start to see government agencies and departments responding to your ideas.
  8. Think both “weak” and “strong”: There are ways we connect with each other to build trust and there are ways we connect to make acquaintance and perhaps have a little fun. My recent research suggests that you should try to do both. Activities that build strong ties on social media include acknowledging volunteers and donors, posting accountability information, and taking pictures of activities that your group is involved in. These things help people become emotionally attached to your cause. Activities that build weak ties include sharing a meme, connecting to celebrities and marketing Twitter hashtags. These things connect you to people outside your local network and open up doors to other ideas and allies.
  9. Pass the Baton: Even though a small group of people are going to end up being the “heroes” of your cause (see #4), you can still build support by making sure that you have sub-causes that can let other voices come up to the top of the list. It is important to give as many different voices the highlight as you can. This may not happen with any single event, but over time you can show that you have solidarity by letting new faces come forward.
  10. Empathy is a Muscle: The world is full of misery and this requires us to look at our worlds constantly with an eye to how we can improve things. However, we are also human. The truth is, people get fatigued as they come to serve social causes. This fatigue eventually ends up with a surprising lack of empathy for causes that are not our own. Do not fall into this trap. The best way to avoid empathy fatigue is to be selfish once in a while. Take a break from the Internet and go find yourself on a camping trip, take a vacation or spend time with family. The problems will still be there when you get back. Take care of yourself.

These are just some jotted down thoughts I have based partly on some readings, and partly on some research. I’d really appreciate any other ideas you have on the matter. Also, as a favor, if you like this post, I’d really appreciate it if you could share links to my articles on the Keystone XL Pipeline & the Third Sector.

Make No Mistake: Taxes Are An Evil, However Necessary

I am not about to weigh in on who I think should win the federal election or even whether I’d like to see a majority or a minority.   To be honest, I would love to pick and choose among the policies among all the parties – of course, real politics don’t work that way.

But I would like to weigh in on something that really does need to be said, because I think it can work as a bridge between right and left-leaning policies:  the role of taxation, and why, in fact, the market is preferable in most cases.

Take this all-too-familiar supply-demand curve:

In this case we have a before-tax supply curve (green), an after-tax supply curve (red) and a demand curve (blue).

Tax incidence, deadweight, tax burden
Description of deadweight as it pertains to a tax.

As you may (or may not) have learned in a basic economics class, the ‘invisible hand’ will guide the market towards the price and quantity that matches where the demand and supply curves meet (where green meets blue).  Let’s say that this location is $10 and 10 gajibazillions units sold for a total of $100 gajibazillion dollars.

Now we add the tax.    In this graph, it’s a straight-forward per unit tax, like gas, say at $1 per unit (if we did a percentage tax, like the GST, the space between the two supply curves would get bigger as you moved to the right, but per unit is easier to deal with, so let’s go with that).

When consumers find out that the costs is, in fact, $1 more than the stated cost, they will realize that they are not getting the same amount of product for the higher price (because $1 is going to the government).   “Oh no!” many will say, “the product is not worth all that much money. ”   They will drop out of the market.   Suppliers, responding to the change in demand, will drop their prices slightly so to maximize their profits.   Let’s say the new price is $10.75, and the new lower quantity is 9 gajibazillion units.   This change in behavior of consumers and suppliers in response to the tax is called a market distortion.

Okay – so now some math.   We’ve already discovered that the market volume with no tax is 100 gajibazillion dollars.   The market volume after the tax is $9.75 (remember, $1 goes to the government to pay the taxes) times 9 units or $87.75 gajibazillion dollars, for a difference of 12.25 gajibazillion dollars.

Ah – but of course, the government will be absolutely efficient and non-bureaucratic and responsible with our tax dollars, so we are going to get the value  of those taxes one way or another right?   Sure.   Except, they are collecting $1 for each of the 9 gajibazillion units for a grand total of 9 gajibazillion dollars, well short of the $12.25 gajibazillion dollars that was lost in the economy.  A grand total of 3.25 gajibazillion is lost – a completely unrecoverable loss in the economy simply by applying the tax – and that’s before we consider anything about the costs of administering the tax, whether that tax gets used effectively or efficiently by the government and so on.

This is why taxes are evil.   The flip side, of course, is that there are a number of other things that are more evil than tax burdens.   Things like large government deficits, lack of support for the poor, lack of equality, lack of established order and so on.

This should mean that we ought to consider a few things:

  • anyone who tells you that they are building the economy by using your tax dollars is lying.   Deficits are merely deferred taxes.   You can temporarily stall an economic downturn, or you can build certain sectors of the economy, but when push comes to shove, any tax *takes away* from the economy, and never recovers what was taken away.
  • given a proportional tax rate (eg. income tax, where the tax rate increases as income increases), the market distortions at the higher pay scales will result in even higher market distortions.   This is a pretty solid argument in favor of reducing taxes for those with higher wages, especially if you want to build your economy on a highly skilled labour force.   Another solution is to offer a flat tax rate, which has the added benefit of reducing the administrative costs of calculating your taxes every year.
  • Unfortunately, this implies an inequitable distribution of funds in the economy.   By doing the best possible things for the largest group of people, those at the bottom of the totem pole appear to benefit the least.  BUT, the bottom line is that bottom of the totem pole still benefits – just not as much as those at the top.
  • Anytime you see a promise about a new government program, it is always at least a little bit wise to wonder if those benefits couldn’t otherwise be provided by, well, um YOU.  You earning more money by bringing more value to the consumer contributes to reducing the deficit.   While some would argue with me, this applies to public servants as well (assuming that the service cannot otherwise be provided by the market).
  • Re: corporate taxes – if you pay taxes when you cash in your mutual funds, do you really think you should be paying taxes *again* when your investment turns a profit?   Remember, those corporate taxes are also a tax on your pension.
  • We should be getting away from deficits as soon as possible.  2-3 years is more than enough to stall the economic downturn.  Now it’s up to the private sector to start turning the wheels.
  • Don’t trust party reputations when considering this.  Conservative does not always mean conservative.  Nor does liberal necessarily mean liberal.
  • Yeah, this is all just theory.  If you do not believe that people act rationally (they don’t), nor have perfect information (they don’t), you have reason to question all of this.

Wikileaks: Where the Hole is Big Enough to Drive a Truck Through

When I first heard about Wikileaks, I felt that possibly they were providing a much needed ‘heads up’ to the public on important International concerns such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   When I heard about the recent cable releases, I thought they caught the United States in some particularly heinous territory with their International Policy — something that represented a serious shift from the norms of behavior that the country’s citizens would expect from the people who represent them abroad.

Instead, it’s just a leak of cables.   Stories of Omar Khadaffi oogling voluptuous Ukranian blonds.   CSIS members complaining about lawyers.   Frank opinions about Russian dignitaries.    All great stuff to sell newspapers and boost the ego of the ‘leakers’ but nothing representing an international emergency.    Given this lack of urgency, it is my opinion that Wikileaks did the wrong thing when they leaked this information.     There is no ethical standard that I can apply that justifies their actions here.    Let’s go over some of the tests.

Let’s start with Emmanuel Kant’s ‘categorial imperative,’ act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.   I do not accept left-wing minds ought to be allowed to leak private documents to undermine aggressive international policy because I know that right-wing minds would more than enjoy the opportunity to leak medical documents and doctor reports to undermine expensive public health care.

Now, I do not accept Kant wholeheartedly.   I do believe we should make room for exceptions in cases where the action provides a benefit, or prevents a negative that greatly outweighs the negatives that come from the action.     A deontological (Kantian) mind must have a utilitarian conscience.   So, taking the Trolley problem example, I do think there is some justification for pulling the switch that kills one person when it means saving the lives of thousands.    With some clear (and very important) caveats:

  • there is clear evidence of public benefit
  • there is no apparent self-interest in pulling the switch
  • the one person is not known to be vulnerable within the society (see Rawls)

Clearly, I do not see a clear public benefit to the leaks.    I do, however, see plenty of self-interest as media outlet after media outlet uses the juiciest elements of the cables to sell their papers.    The damage that this leak causes, however, will never be quantified.    Government Services will be regulated and secured to the point that they are no longer services in any sense of the word.   Foreign Affairs agents will always be thinking about their (needed) frank opinions in the context of these leaks.   In the best case scenario, this means embarrassment for public officials.   In the worst case scenario, this means a disconnect between diplomacy and policy – which is a euphemistic way of saying “stupid Wars caused by miscommunication.”

The final test is one of my favorites, put out by John Rawls — the ‘original position’ test.   This test would offer that people should act as if they came into society with no understanding of its norms or structure.    The person in this position would want the society that protected its most vulnerable members (because, given no prior understanding of status, someone would want to ensure that they had a decent lifestyle no matter their status).      The so-called transparent society that so many internet lovers desire is not to the advantage of the most disadvantaged.    For one, the most disadvantaged likely have no clue whatsoever that this whole Wikileaks thing ever happened.    All they’ll know is that some authority figure in their country will put two and two together (correctly or incorrectly) and accuse them (correctly or incorrectly) of treason based on pieces of evidence found in these documents.

In short, there is no real ethical justification in my mind for leaking these documents to the public, only a half-baked and obnoxious internet ideology.    It was a wrong-minded action and it should be punished in my view.   Fortunately for the people involved — people who are by no means the vulnerable people John Rawls wanted us to consider — they will be punished in a country that believes in ethical treatment of their citizens and fair trials.

For shame.

Bureaucrat 101 – or how to be a good libertarian

Dan Leger’s article  Liquor Store Lunacy: Time to privatize NSLC and the subsequent arm-chair economists complaining about government monopolies has me screaming for someone — anyone — to provide the public with a basic tutorial on public finance and policy.   I suppose it is a great thing that people who find themselves going through a business degree, learning the very basics of theoretical microeconomics (you know,  supply and demand, ‘invisible hand,’ OMG don’t mess with the markets.  EVAR! theory) can take their learnings and become blowhard political pundits because of it.    Such is democracy.    But, it’d be nice to hear from some of the people who actually learned the very basics of public policy, the role of government in the economy, and that, despite what business gurus will tell you, everything is not about efficiency.

It just turns out that I took a degree in Public Administration, so am in a position to comment in general about public bureaucracy and the economy and when (and not when) it might be a good time for the government to get involved in the market.

For the record, I am in favor of the deregulation of beer and wine (not the privatisation that Leger calls for, which would just transfer the assets belonging to the NSLC to some private organization).   I think the ability to sell beer and wine would give a little bit of stability to smaller retailers who could then complement their beer and wine with local goods and compete more effectively against the big box stores, providing more consumer choice and lower prices.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that I’m a hard-line ‘NSLC should stay a crown corporation’ pundit.    What lines of argument might someone use to support government control of a market?    There are four major ones:

Natural Monopolies

Some products, usually because they require a large amount of capital to produce, result in monopolies when left to free markets.    A good example for this is electrical power.   Usually the first company to open up a power grid in an area wins, and has a great deal of power to keep others out of the business.   Generally, governments respond to Natural Monopolies in one of two ways – 1) taking ownership through a crown corporation (as was once the case a long time ago) or 2) regulation (which is the current case).   Natural Monopoly does not apply to liquor, though.    Liquor is a basic retail product.   Check one for the liberatarians.

Market Failures

Products that can turn a profit usually have at least two traits.

First, they are rival goods meaning that one person consuming the good prevents another from also consuming it.   A hotdog is rivalrous because if I eat my hotdog, it means you cannot.     This (non-DRM’d) blog post, because it sits on a server, is non-rivalrous.  You can read it, and so can everyone else.

Second, they are excludable, meaning that it is possible to prevent people who haven’t paid for a good from getting it.    The hot dog is excludable, because it will sit on the Dawgfather’s barbeque until you give him the money (although rumor has it that he’ll let you pay him back later, no questions asked).   Marine cod (in the water, not at the store) is non-excludable because you basically need an army to keep people from fishing the ocean.

Goods that are either non-excludable or non-rivalrous result in something economists call market failures.   Because the market will not provide these on its own, some level of government involvement is necessary.   For instance, copyright law is a way to get around the non-rivalrous aspect of an MP3 file.     Selling fishing licenses is a way around the non-exclusivity of marine fish.   In cases of both non-rivalrous and non-excludability (eg. National Defense), you usually have the government offering the service itself.    Liquor is not a market failure.    Score another for the libertarians.

Externalities

Related to market failures is the idea of externalities.    Externalities occur when an individual’s market behavior has an impact on others, distorting the market and creating inefficiency.   The best example is pollution.   Governments will tend to get involved in high-polluting industries because they can make everyone else miserable when making a profit for themselves.    Sometimes the action is regulation, other times it’s taxation.  Ronald Coase has a neat response to externalities as well – the argument is that if you assign property rights (through law), the market will adjust to the most efficient outcome.    So, if the government decides that I own the lake I’m polluting, people effected by my pollution will pay me to reduce the level of pollution in the lake (and because I’ll make a profit, I’ll oblige).    This is called Coase Theorem (not to be confused with another Coasean theory about the nature of the firm, oft cited by Clay Shirky).

It should be noted that externalities can happen in a positive way too.    For instance, me writing blog posts provides the internet with much entertainment that I am not getting paid for, creating an externality and economic inefficiency.    Coase theorem, therefore, would be one argument favoring the use of DRM to protect copyright.

The consumption of liquor does create an externality because public drunkeness, drunk driving, alcoholism, and poor judgement by intoxicated people can have a negative impact on the happiness of others.     So, because liquor has this negative impact, it is fair for the government to assign property rights on drinking to a Crown Corporation, forcing business that want in on the business to pay for expensive licenses, high taxes and jump through complicated hoops to profit from liquor.     This one is debatable, however, because government could also assign property rights to a private agency just as well.   Let’s say score a 3/4 point for the Crown Corp side.

Social Policy

The strongest argument in favor of giving the rights to sell liquor to a private agency is social policy.    In short, the goal of non-privatised liquor has nothing to do with economic efficiency, but instead addresses community concerns instead.     The list for this is long, possibly exhaustive:

  • to prevent the intoxication of minors, including the enforcement of age limits
  • to reduce alcoholism
  • to control the use of alcohol in the workplace (and prevent Health and Safety incidents)
  • to reduce the possibility of promoting alcohol to minors
  • to provide some level of public accountability for how the intoxicating effects of alcohol could be used to create profits (eg. the combination of alcohol and gambling comes to mind)

The argument here is not that governments prevent alcoholism, but instead that if alcoholism becomes a serious social issue, governments would have an incentive (and responsibility) to do something about it.   In private hands, the public has less control over the degree of product that gets out to market and except for a little bit of brand damage (which would mean literally nothing to someone who is addicted to alcohol) no real clout to force said private agency or agencies to change their behavior.

The NSLC puts considerable money into campaigns against drunk driving.     They are frank and to the point.    In private hands, I would argue, such campaigns would be non-existant – and if they were somehow mandated, they would be purposely done to satisfice, rather than address the real public concern.    We cannot forget that liquor is a drug – possibly the drug that is most responsible for death in Canada, not to mention being responsible for a wide range of other problems we have in our communities.

In short, the community has a strong vested interested in who gets to sell alcohol and who does not and despite silly marketing ploys,  there are very good reasons not to privatise the NSLC.   That’s about 10 points in favor of NSLC as a Crown Corporation, I would say.

Back to Reality

Despite, my rant pro-NSLC, I still favor some de-regulation of alcohol in Nova Scotia.    I think the benefits that having beer and wine in small stores outweigh some of the social negatives I outlined.

My bigger beef is that libertarian ideology overrides common sense, when it should be the other way around.   I can favor reduced government involvement in a lot of places for sure, but to suggest that there is never a good reason for a government to get involved, or to have a monopoly on a service (in reality, any government service *should* be a monopoly because ideally goverments should offer things that cannot already be provided by the market) is just plain false.    There are a few cases where governments ought to be involved in markets, and the smart libertarian ought to discount these cases before calling for privatisation.     Bureaucrats are not as stupid and lazy as your average Joe wants to make them out to be.     It’s just that they do not have a whole lot of opportunity to bring the logic behind their decisions into the public forum.   Maybe they should have more power to debate policy issues to the community.    I am not sure how to make that possible, but it seems to be a fair comment in a society that expects increased accountability from the public sector.