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A blogging parliament

March 5, 2013

Last night I found myself watching Steve Waldman’s talk at the 2011 Economic Bloggers Forum at the Kaufman Foundation. I’m a big fan of Waldman’s blog Interfluidity. His talk was interesting and thought-provoking, like his writing. I suggest you watch it.

After expressing outrage at the failure of control systems and the political system after the financial crisis, Waldman asks the question, why are we where we are? His answer: there’s a monopoly of power in this country even as information itself is increasingly available. The monopoly of power is extremely correlated, of course, to the rising wealth inequality, beautifully visualized in this recent video (h/t Leon Kautsky, Debika Shome) by Politizane.

The solution, he hopes, may include the blogosphere (although it’s not a perfect place either, with its own revolving doors, weird incentives and possibly conflicts of interest). The work of bloggers is valuable social capital, Steve argues, so how do we deploy it?

Steve introduced the concept of policy entrepreneurs, which have three characteristics:

  1. They are sources of information in the form policy ideas. They possible even write laws.
  2. They have some kind of certification in order to cover the policy maker’s ass.
  3. They exert some kind of influence on policy makers, to create incentives for their policy goals.

In other words, a policy entrepreneur is someone in the business of shaping policy makers’ agendas.

If you stop there, you might think “lobbyist,” and you’d be right. But the problem with our current lobbyist system is not the above three characteristics, but rather that it’s a such a closed system. In other words, you essentially need to be rich to be an influential lobbyist (or at least, as an influential lobbyist, you are backed by enormous wealth), but then that increases the monopolistic nature of political power. It doesn’t solve our “monopoly of power” problem.

The question becomes, is there a way for normal people, or groups of people, to be policy entrepreneurs?

One possible solution, Waldman suggests, is to from a parliament of bloggers. Since groups are taken seriously, can bloggers form official groups in which they gain consensus around a topic and issue policy?

An intriguing idea, and I like it because it’s not really abstract: if bloggers decided to try this, they could literally just form a group, call ourselves a name, and start issuing policy proposals. Of course they’d probably not get anywhere unless we had influence or leverage.

Does something like this already exist? The closest thing I can think of is the hacker group Anonymous – although they might not be bloggers, they might be. They’re anonymous. I’m going to guess they are active on the web even if they don’t specifically blog. In any case, let’s see if they qualify as policy entrepreneurs in the above sense.

  • They don’t issue specific policy proposals, but they certainly object clearly to policies they don’t like.
  • Their credentials lie in their unparalleled ability to take control of information systems.
  • Likewise, their leverage is fierce in this domain.

In all, I don’t think Anonymous fits the bill – they’re too devoted to anarchy to deliver policy in the sense that Waldman suggests, and their tools are too crude to make fine points. This might have to do with the nature of hackers in general (keeping in mind that Anonymous stand for something far more extreme than the average hacker), which I read about in an essay by Paul Graham yesterday (h/t Chris Wiggins):

Those in authority tend to be annoyed by hackers’ general attitude of disobedience. But that disobedience is a byproduct of the qualities that make them good programmers. They may laugh at the CEO when he talks in generic corporate newspeech, but they also laugh at someone who tells them a certain problem can’t be solved. Suppress one, and you suppress the other.


Here’s another problem: aren’t bloggers in general kind of their own 1%? Is policy via a “parliament of bloggers” not enough of an improvement to the current system of insiders?

What about if Occupy got into the idea of being a vehicle of policy entrepreneurship? Even though we tend not to support specific political candidates in Occupy, we do consistently think about policy and decide whether to endorse a given bill or policy proposal. Could we, instead of commenting on existing policy, start thinking about proposing new policy, even to the point of writing new laws?

On the one hand such work requires enormously long discussions and difficult-to-obtain consensus, but on the other hand we have the knowledge, the abilities, and the moral persuasion. Do we have the influence? And would Occupiers think exerting influence on policy in the current corrupt system tantamount to selling out?

Categories: #OWS, musing
  1. alagator2k13
    March 5, 2013 at 11:47 am

    If I may be so bold to suggest that they look into the history of how the US Green Building Council evolved from a consensus based free market initiative into a Green Building Rating System and advocacy institution… http://new.usgbc.org/


  2. Dan Weber
    March 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    While I don’t disagree that power had coalesced into certain groups I suggest that the primary reason for this concentration has been economic growth due to innovation and low cost labor. The concentration has occurred in many countries, not just the US, which leads to the idea that low cost labor is disrupting many occupations.

    I am not sure what governmental policies will adjust that scenario without hurting innovation and growth.


  3. mathematrucker
    March 5, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    That’s! a! superb! wealth inequality vid.

    Waldman’s “flaky proposal” vid, also excellent, made me think of the Union of Concerned Scientists near the end. btw if you ever find yourself at the receiving end of a covert Amway pitch in the home of two of your coworkers who are married, when out of the blue they suddenly ask you what you’d do if you came into a whole bunch of money, tell them you’d donate it to the Union of Concerned Scientists. That’s what I did thirty-one years ago, and believe me, it works like a charm! (“Um, what’s that?!”) Stopped them dead in their tracks!


  4. araybold
    March 7, 2013 at 8:52 am

    From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr., people have been influencing policy by generating grassroots support. Only when that support reaches a significant level can you influence policy. Blogging has made it easier to get your word out, but what counts is the number of engaged listeners.


  5. commenterfromgermany
    March 14, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Dear MathBabe,
    I just recently found out about your blog and am very much impressed, this is some of the most interesting stuff I’ve read in a long while.
    As to this post, I would like to draw your attention to a recently formed political party in Germany (where I’m residing), called “The Pirate’s Party”, which has as one of its core ideas what they call “liquid democracy”. Essentially, they believe that policies should be developed by a debate, mostly held online on discussion boards between its party members, and not, like in traditional political parties, more or less behind closed doors mainly by the higher echelons of a party.


  1. March 7, 2013 at 7:28 am
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