Friday, September 4, 2009

On Media, Deliberation, and General Silliness in the Healthcare debate

In a blog entry for Newsweek, Jenny Hontz discusses the influence of Facebook on healthcare reform, and spuriously concludes that it has some. In contrast to some other shameless glorifications of technology in the media, Hontz at least provides some evidence for her inference: one advertising cliche, one B-list celebrity, and 7 or 8 anecdotes/off the cuff comments from "experts." The reality is that there is no evidence to support the idea that Facebook status updates have ever affected major policy decisions, and no reason to believe they ever will.

Hontz's reference to social networks as "the real town halls" leads to me to believe the root of this general silliness in the media lies in a popular, and fundamental, misunderstanding of the nature of democratic politics. Much animosity and general frustration generated by the healthcare debate would be ameliorated if we just dispensed with the myth that American democracy is somehow deliberative. Over 50 years ago, Joseph Schumpeter conceived of democracy as a marketplace in which political entrepreneurs compete for customers in the form of voters in elections. Democracy is not a process by which reasonable people come together to discuss differences and arrive at a common good, which becomes policy. Politicians make policy, or don't, because of their calculations about what will win them elections, not by getting together in the Senate chamber and changing each others' minds about what serves the best interests of society.

Viewed in this sense, the healthcare debate looks less passionate and more rational. The idea that town halls are deliberative is silly. Elected representatives in opposition are in the privileged position of not having to make policy. Instead the opposition just does what it does best- oppose. Not with specific alternatives or reasoned debate, but with misinformation, name calling, and general populist rhetoric. Of course they have no incentive to reign in this type of rhetoric at town halls, because town halls are primarily a mechanism for the transmission of voters' intentions, not for deliberation.

Analogously, there are two mechanisms by which online social networks might affect policy. The first is that they facilitate deliberation, which Hontz argues is occurring on healthcare, a proposition for which there is absolutely no evidence. Second, networks may facilitate the transmission voter intentions. This mechanism is certainly more plausible, but the evidence that representatives respond to these intentions is thus far scant. As Hontz rightfully notes, updating your Facebook status is cheap talk, and may not be a credible signal of your intention to support. In any case, a more careful consideration of the democratic process, and more accumulation of serious evidence is necessary before we start declaring that "Facebook Revolts" are shaping policy making.


Ben said...

Saw this over at Swampland after I read your post and thought of you.

Bret said...

yeah i saw that too, and i think its what inspired the post. its getting hard to distinguish time and newsweek, since theyre in the middle of having a "wildly-irresponsible-unsubstantiated-inference-off" the last few months. another great example is this Time article about "why exercise won't make you thin.",8599,1914857,00.html

i mean facebook status updates are one thing, but that, even if you're going for shock value, is downright dangerous. i'd love to hear from some thoughts from the journalists out there about how these relatively credible outlets getting away with printing conjecture at best, and misrepresentation and pure fantasy at worst. i know there's an economic incentive to print these kinds of headlines, but i can't believe its as simple as that. these people have to have more of a sense of journalistic responsibility.

Colin said...

In a similar vein on democracy I would recommend "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Bryan Caplan, the thesis of which is self-explanatory.

Bret said...

yeah i dont fundamentally disagree with caplan, although i think assuming voters are completely irrational is as unhelpful as assuming rationality. downs (an economic theory of democracy) provided one of the original formulations of why we should not expect a rational individual to vote. see samuel popkin( the reasoning voter) for more on how voters use things like political parties as information shortcuts. cook and levi (the limits of rationality) is an edited volume that addresses a number of ways that rational choice theorists have attempted to account for apparently irrational behavior.

neither do i think that it automatically follows that democracies should withdraw from the market. obviously, some policy should never be subject to political pressures, which is the rationale for independent central banks. but beyond that, see doug north's account of how elites construct political and market institutions to serve their own short term interests. beyond that, institutions tend to get "locked in" to suboptimal paths of development, potentially resulting in inefficiency. i think this is probably what caplan is referring to, although i havent actually read the book. see paul pierson (increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics) for more on path dependence and political institutions.

political institutions and the market have always been inextricably linked. we shouldn't be talking about questions of degree of intervention, but rather about what kinds of intervention are appropriate.