America isn’t crowdsourcing its policies

By Felix Salmon
November 10, 2011
Anil Dash, of Expert Labs, is very excited about the latest government action on student loans, because he's convinced that it was driven by the White House petition site he helped to set up.

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Anil Dash, of Expert Labs, is very excited about the latest government action on student loans, because he’s convinced that it was driven by the White House petition site he helped to set up.

Something remarkable happened here:

  1. A regular citizen, not a lobbyist or politician or CEO, made a suggestion of a smart idea on the White House’s petition website.
  2. That idea got promoted through social media, filtering its way out through Twitter and blogs and Facebook.
  3. One month later the administration endorsed a variation of the idea, making it actual policy and helping over a million and a half Americans to have more money in their pocket at the end of the month.

Every time these milestones and successes are achieved, skeptics want to scoff. “Maybe this guy’s a plant!” “They’re only gonna accept ideas they already agree with.” “I bet most of the ideas are stupid.” “Why would they really listen to us?”

In this example, we see refutations of many of these objections.

This would be quite amazing and wonderful, if it were true. But it’s not true.

For one thing, it’s worth looking at the original petition, which got 32,008 signatures. Here it is in full:

Forgiving student loan debt would provide an immediate jolt to the economy by putting hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of extra dollars into the hands of people who WILL spend it – not just once, but each and every month thereafter – freeing them up to invest, buy homes, start businesses and families. This past year, total student loan debt finally surpassed total credit card debt in America, and is on track to exceed $1 TRILLION within the next year. Student loans themselves are responsible for tuition rates that have soared by 439% since 1982 and for saddling entire generations of educated Americans with intractable levels of student loan debt from which there is, seemingly, no escape. Relieve them of this burden and the middle class WILL rebuild this economy from the bottom-up!

This is pretty extreme stuff: both the idea that student loans have caused rising tuition rates — which seems to get things exactly backwards — and the idea that a trillion dollars of debt could or should simply be eradicated at a stroke. Yes, it would “provide an immediate jolt to the economy”. But it would do so in an incredibly inefficient way — if you’re going to do a $1 trillion stimulus, there are much better ways of doing so.

Yes, the idea got some traction — enough traction that Justin Wolfers felt the need to comprehensively demolish it in a piece headlined “Forgive Student Loans? Worst Idea Ever”.

So Anil’s first point is simply wrong. Yes, a regular citizen suggested something on the White House’s petition website. But it wasn’t a smart idea: it was a pretty stupid idea.

Anil’s second point is right — the stupid idea did indeed get promoted through social media. Social media can be quite good, it turns out, at promoting stupid ideas.

But what of Anil’s third point? Did the Obama administration indeed sign on to the Worst Idea Ever? No, it did not. Instead, it tweaked something called the income based repayment policy so that certain benefits will go into effect in 2012 rather than in 2014. And it allowed students to consolidate their federal student loans into one loan, to “give borrowers the convenience of a single payment to a single lender”. Which is nice, but hardly a big deal.

It’s a real stretch to call this “a variation of” the original idea, which called for student loan forgiveness. There’s no new forgiveness in the new announcements — and the old forgiveness is the kind of forgiveness which only takes effect after 20 years. Not exactly what “Robert A” of Staten Island had in mind.

On top of that, it defies credulity to suggest, as Anil does, that the White House announcement was in any way of form “crowdsourced policy”. Robert A’s suggestion — which, remember, had none of the elements of the policy that was eventually put into place — was uploaded on September 23; the new policies were announced on October 26.

Earth to Anil Dash: policies like this do not get hatched, implemented, and announced in the space of 23 working days. I can guarantee you that these student-loan proposals were in the works long before Robert A’s suggestion was made, and that they would have been announced anyway, even if the petition hadn’t existed.

It’s pretty obvious what happened here: the administration wanted to make it seem as though the petition site was having some useful effect, and so it took a policy it would have announced anyway, and declared that the policy was in response to some petition. It just didn’t do that very well, since the announced policy in fact bears almost no relation to what the petition was asking for.

So let’s not get cyber-utopian about crowdsourced policies: they haven’t happened yet, they’re unlikely to happen in the future, and insofar as they do happen, the crowds in question will not be virtual crowds on a White House website, but rather real crowds at places like Tea Party rallies or Occupy Wall Street. The internet is a good way of organizing people to turn up in person. It is not in any way an alternative to doing so, at least if you want to change government policy.

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