Astro-baptists

November 4, 2009 at 4:31 am 1 comment

| Gabriel |

On NPR the other day I heard a story about how a lobbyist forged letters to Congress from the NAACP and AAUW opposing the Waxman-Markey cap-trade bill. I thought this was amusing on several levels, only the first of which is that apparently the bill wasn’t convoluted and toothless enough to buy off all of the incumbent stakeholders as some of them hired this guy. The real interest though is that the blatant absurdity of this story heightens the basic dynamics of the bootlegger and Baptist coalition dynamic in that in this case the bootlegger was so desperate for a Baptist that he imagined one, much as the too-good-to-be-true quotes conjured by fabulist reporters heighten the absurd genre conventions of journalism.

The bootlegger and Baptist model is a part of public choice theory that argues that policy making often involves a coalition between stakeholders motivated by rentseeking and ideologues with principled positions. In the titular example, the policy is blue laws which would be supported both by Baptists who don’t like booze violating the sabbath and clandestine alcohol entrepreneurs delighted to see demand pushed from legitimate retailers to the black market. We had something close to a literal bootlegger-baptist model with the Abramoff scandal, in which various gambling interests paid the Christian Coalition to kneecap the competition. Another recent prominent example is that, before being airbrushed out of history for having, ahem, unorthodox political affiliations, Van Jones was best known for “green jobs,” which can be uncharitably described as a bit of political entrepreneurship proposing a grand bargain in which his constituents would get patronage jobs in exchange for supporting green policies.

Although bootlegger-Baptist is an econ model, soc and OB folks independently arrived at this same model by noting that resource dependence on the state is not a pure Tullock lottery, but is contingent on facial legitimacy. If you read chapter 8 of External Control of Organizations you’ll see that it’s not only the bridge between resource dependence and neo-institutionalism, but also a bootlegger-Baptist model avant le lettre.

One of the interesting things is that lately civil rights groups seem to have been the (real or imagined) Baptists of choice, and not just in the anti-Waxman-Markey forgery. So for instance a few weeks ago 72 Democratic Congressmen sent a letter to the FCC opposing net neutrality. It’s not surprising that the blue dogs were among them as you’d expect fiscal conservatives to oppose a new regulation. The interesting thing is that the letter was also signed by most of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as “the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Asian American Justice Center.” Their (plausible) logic was essentially that preventing telecoms from charging content providers would delay the rollout of broadband and therefore maintain the digital divide. So here we have an issue combining rent-seeking telecoms hoping to soak content providers and prevent competition from VOIP forming a coalition with civil rights groups and their legislative allies who have a principled commitment to eliminating inequality in use of technology.

I got total deja vu when I read this as the exact same thing happened a few years ago when Nielsen was attacked by the Don’t Count Us Out Coalition. The backstory is that Nielsen and Arbitron traditionally rely on diaries to collect the audience data that is used to set advertising rates. Unfortunately respondents are too lazy/stupid to complete diaries accurately. In recognition of this problem both Arbitron and Nielsen have been trying to switch to more accurate passive monitoring techniques that aren’t dependent on the diligence and recall of the respondent, but they still use diaries for sweeps.

Nielsen had the bright idea of the Local People Meter project, which would eliminate sweeps diaries in the largest media markets and rely entirely on a large continuous rolling sample using passive monitoring. This implies a substantial improvement in data quality for a large part of the advertising market. This sounds like a good thing but Nielsen found itself attacked by the “Don’t Count Us Out Coalition” which argued that Nielsen was a racist monopoly, mostly on the basis that in one or two of the test markets for LPM they undersampled blacks. The “Coalition” got some serious support in Congress until Nielsen was able to demonstrate that it was just an astroturf* group set up by NewsCorp, which stood to see a ratings drop under the improved technology. (Or more technically, the new technology would reveal that the old technology had been exaggerating the ratings of NewsCorp properties. Peterson and Anand have a great article on a similar dynamic in recorded music sales).

—–

*Given the rather promiscuous way that people throw around the term “astroturf” it’s necessary to clarify the term. I reserve the term “astroturf” exclusively for fax machine and letterhead operations organized by a lobbyist, pr firm, or the like. It is not analytically useful to extend the term to cover things like the tea parties where elites mobilize ordinary people to come and protest. If you want to distinguish such things from the Platonic ideal of grassroots mobilization fine, call them “fertilizing the grassroots” or something, but astroturf they ain’t. Likewise, it is lazy and slanderous conspiracy-mongering to assume without further evidence that anyone who takes the same position on an issue as a stakeholder must of course be bought by the stakeholder. If you want to echo Orwell and call such people “objectively pro-X” then fine, but that don’t mean the Baptist lacks a principled reasons for siding with the bootlegger on a particular issue.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Don said you were the market, and you were A Note on the Uses of Official Statistics

1 Comment

  • 1. Audience Evolution « Code and Culture  |  December 16, 2010 at 5:23 am

    […] Discussion of the LPM and PPM (also see Napoli’s blog post from yesterday) I’ve blogged about these issues before, but he does a much better job of it. Basically, improved technology would reveal that certain […]


The Culture Geeks


%d bloggers like this: