Running up the right colours

A couple of months ago I read Interstate 69, which is an unexpectedly interesting account of the advocates and opponents (neither of whom are really insiders) of an extension to the eponymous road from the American Midwest to the Mexican border and their attempts to gain the ear of policy makers. I was taken by this paragraph about the campaign by a couple in opposition.

The logistics required to run a statewide political operation would have drowned most activists, but the Stalls were  savvy and highly communicative. I once rode in their truck with David, who was a police officer for twenty-two years, and the front seat was a tangle of cords and wires connected to a ham radio and three or four cell phones. David had set up one phone with a 202 area code because he found people in Washington, D.C, were more likely to answer calls from inside the beltway.

It reminded me of this post from a couple of years ago by Nicholas.

Being the son of an academic I was brought up to believe that the most influential ideas were those that were best argued and which were advocated by people who did not have a direct interest in the stake of the argument, because then their advocacy was tainted. I told her that I had discovered that this was wrong. No-one took you seriously at all unless you had some position and even that was less important than representing someone great and powerful or at least large and wealthy.

I had discovered that this was true, not just with governments in general but even of organisations that, it seemed to me, ought to have the same values my father taught me – like the Industries Assistance Commission. In any event, it was not so. So I was in Melbourne visiting a large company who stood to gain significantly from the policy I was advocating. I was trying to persuade them to pay me to advocated the policy either on their behalf.

The difference of course is that this couple had discovered a cheap alternative for a think tank title, or that of an industry body or wealthy company or professional cartel. They could flag their ship as interested sophist (and worthy of entering the Port of State) with a simple numerical signifier.

Of course, it only would work as long as no-one else was doing it.

It is unfortunate that it’s hard to have a voice heard if you have no vested interests, if you’re not a player (though not impossible, as I found out). It’s not just that those in power want to deal with those with power, but also that fact that material interest makes for easily identifiable “sides” to give the false balance of he-said, she-said – not the mention of course that content is cheap when a PR firm paid for by the interests has produced it for you. It’s the latter I find more aggravating. We have, after all, long established mechanisms to keep the state to account, but which can be hamstrung or subverted when uncritical coverage is so easily available to the MCA or PCA or AMA etc.

But it is fun when people find partial ways to sneak into the port, like the Stalls above, or Nicholas. I just wish there were more ways to do it.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Nicholas Gruen
13 years ago

I once offered not to charge for a consulting job because I’d approached the company with the policy idea and I wanted to say to the Government that I wasn’t proposing this because I was paid.

The company was so startled that it gave me the ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ treatment.

It amuses me how compartmentalised people are. They want a place for charitable instincts, and then one for business instincts and they’re not comfortable just working it out as they go (like we have to do to life).

I once emailed an economist colleague expounding the considerable virtues of Kaggle for statistical work of various kinds and was greeted with a reply which asked whether I was sending the email as a friend or as marketing!

I was offended of course. But it I did laugh.