Friday, January 16, 2009

The Crowd Speaks, but Does it Speak Wisely?

Back when I tried to take Dan Froomkin to task for his Wiki White House proposal, I tried to stress that the ways of governance are not so much mysterious as they are subtle. Anyone who has had to sit on a jury that did not immediately decide on a verdict probably has at least adequate appreciation of that subtlety; but only a small percentage of our voting public get to have such an informative first-hand experience. Others can acquire that appreciation by following the news; but only if they bother to read (or watch on television) more than headline content. Nevertheless the wisdom-of-crowds evangelists continue to ride roughshod over their opponents, sometimes to the point of glossing over actual evidence.

As Tim Dickinson pointed out in the latest post to his National Affairs blog, that evidence can be informative to those who bother to open their eyes and view it. In Dickinson's case the evidence comes from the recently launched Citizen's Briefing Book, which is not a shared-content-authored Wiki but simply an instance of reader-rated content:

The Obama transition team at have implemented an innovative idea called the Citizen’s Briefing Book, a way for average citizens to suggest and vet policy proposals that will ultimately be presented to the president.

Anyone can post an idea.

From there it’s kind of like ReadIt, where users can give other people’s ideas a thumbs up or thumbs down.

So what has bubbled to the top among the reader/raters of this site? Here is what Dickinson discovered:

The top three citizen proposals in order:

Ending Marijuana Prohibition

Bullet Trains & Light Rail

An end to the government sponsored abstinence education to be replaced by an introduction of age appropriate sex education.

It saddens me to realize that most readers these days have probably never seen Jack Benny fold his arms, stare straight into his audience (or television camera), and declaim nothing other than the word, "Well!," since that is sort of the way I felt after reading this list. Where is the economic crisis that supposedly motivated the electorate to choose Obama in the first place? Where are the resources (human and material) being squandered in the name of imperial adventurism hiding behind the mask of the Global War on Terror? Where is the fact that we have been trying to reform health care since the early days of the Clinton Administration and have not yet managed to get to square one?

My efforts to refute Froomkin involved the suggestion that public addiction to consumerism may play a role in addling that purported "wisdom" of crowds. The three proposals that Dickinson encountered are highly consumerist in nature: They are all aspects of "stuff" on which we can spend our money (even if it is nothing more than a condom). However, they all assume that we have that money to spend: that we have not lost our money through medical bills we cannot afford, unrealistic real estate purchases, or portfolios that tanked along with the rest of the stock exchanges. It is as if Barack Obama has restored our optimism in the future without marshalling our will to work together to build that future (which was the most important message of his campaign). Put another way, now that Obama has been elected, the crowd that elected him is less inclined to listen to his strong but gentle injunctions to hard work and more inclined towards Tom Friedman's pie-in-the-sky promises of the next road to wealth creation. Thus, when it comes to policy proposals, they are more interested in what they will do with the money they do not yet have than in how they will get and manage that money in the first place. So does anyone think that the Obama Administration will seriously entertain what I previously called "the moral equivalent of a twelve-step program" to deal with that problem of addiction that is still very much with us?

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