My name’s Matt, and I am a Libertarian. I know some of you guys haven’t seen one before, so if you want, take a picture. Put it on Snapchat. Tell your friends that you actually saw one. I’m also, in the vernacular of our time, what’s known as an old. Are there any other olds in the office?
If you look up an old person in the Urban Dictionary, you discover that we love to bitch about how we feel in the morning. We talk a lot about how we walked to school a mile each way uphill in the snow and rain every day. We might talk about those old rotary phones that you see in the old movies. And how if you wanted to call your your grandma or your girlfriend, you only had one minute because because it cost an extraordinary amount of money. And it actually cost a lot of money just to turn those dials.
And if you wanted to get news, you were allocated one twenty-five minute allocation, and you had a choice of three TV networks once a day, at the end of which Walter Cronkite told you, “That’s the way it is.” There was no opportunity to go on Twitter and flame Walter Cronkite with an alternative point of view. And so it was hard to get information. It was hard to connect with people.
For me as a teenager, it was extraordinarily hard to find cool music. When I started getting into music in 1977, there was this thing called the Top 40. And it was an insidious plan by the music-industrial complex to make you listen to really shitty music. In August of 1977, at the top of the charts, Andy Gibb, “I Just Want to be Your Everything.” You guys probably don’t even know what that is. Have you heard of the Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love?” Every hour on the hour, they would cycle this garbage on the radio station that you were lucky to find, and that’s what you listened to.
One day when I was at school, some cool kid was playing a band that I discovered later was called Rush. It was a live album that had just come out called “All the World’s a Stage.” I talked my mom into driving me to the record store which was two towns over—I lived in a small town. She thought I was crazy, but kids are obsessive and eventually moms give way to that sort of thing. And when I got there, they didn’t have the album I wanted. They had a ton of copies of Captain & Tennille. They had even more copies of Andy Gibb. But they didn’t have the one album I wanted, so I settled for another album by Rush. And it changed my life because I realized from my perspective, not all music had to suck, and that there was a way, if you worked really hard, to beat the music-industrial complex.
Well, this is before Amazon. This is before the music industry…which really controlled everything from the top down. If you listen to any cool music from the 1970s, it’s not just about sex and drugs, it’s about the record company man. You guys have heard these stories? It’s because that guy, that evil guy, had complete control over whether or not your music would make it to people. The cost of production. The cost of producing vinyl records. The ability to even get the ear of the guy that could decide whether or not your band had a future. It was very oppressive. It was a very closed system.
And then along came CDs, which lowered the production costs of music. And then along came Amazon. Whereas the founder of Wired magazine described it, you could finally get to the Long Tail of the Internet. So instead of choosing between Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus at the fat end of the Internet, you could go all the way down to the tail and find the second set of an awesome Grateful Dead show from Cornell University, 1977. That was pretty cool. That was pretty empowering. But still, controlled from the top down. Still controlled by a lot of intermediators that would tell you what what you could listen to.
And then along comes a disruptive technology like Spotify. People in Silicon Valley are talking about this in the context of the end of ownership. You don’t have to buy that vinyl record anymore, you don’t have to buy that CD. You don’t have to let anyone tell you what you can and can’t have, because thanks to social media and apps like Spotify (there’s a thousand of them) you can create your own experience. You can even find those weird folk albums that J. Tillman made before he became Father John Misty. I know, that’s a weird music reference.
Disruptive technology and the potential of social media I think is the most profound thing we could all talk about. And I want to read the definition so I don’t screw it up. From Clayton Christensen—he’s the guy that came up with the phrase “disruptive technology.”
A disruptive innovation is something that allows for a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of the market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.
Bottom of the market access to something that was only available to people with lots of money and lots of skill. I think he just described our political process, right? Think about the two-party duopoly in this closed system we call Washington DC. Has anyone ever been to Washington DC? You see all the buildings that line the halls, not just of K Street, but they they grow up like like a cancer from the Capitol office building. And it’s every single imaginable special interest that has gone to Washington DC to hoard power, to hoard information, and to control the conversation that is supposed to be for the people and by the people.
But that’s not how it works. I’m an economist by training. Since I’m cleaning my closet, I should admit that as well. And economics as you know is the dismal science. There is nothing more dismal than the application of microeconomics to the field of public choice. I went to George Mason University. There’s a gentleman named James Buchanan who won a Nobel Prize for suggesting that political actors are just as self-interested as the rest of us. In other words, politicians want votes, they want to control power. People within in the federal government are self-interested sometimes, which means they keep doing what they were doing even if it’s not necessarily the thing that needs to be done. And that’s why bureaucracies grow inexorably. That’s why in the most dismal interpretation of public choice economics, democracy consumes itself and collapses and we all die.
So that’s sort of a bummer, right? And if you’re wondering why nothing rational seems to happen in Washington DC, it’s because of this iron law of public choice economics. They talk about concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. In other words, if you’re ExxonMobil, or an investment bank, or Big Sugar, or fill-in-the-blank, you have a vested interest in showing up and getting at the table first, and controlling the conversation, and hoarding that information as you’re lined up outside of the halls of the Senate Finance Committee so that you can game the system and get what you want. That’s the concentrated benefit.
And there’s a huge payoff for this. You’re seeing it in the business community. More and more businesses are deciding that their profit center is going to Washington for a favor instead of creating a better product at a lower price and serving consumer demand. This is a corrosive thing that cannot stand if this country’s going to survive.
Now, the dispersed costs, that’s all you guys. Every time Big Sugar protects its monopoly, it means that you probably pay half a cent more for a cookie. And you don’t know that. You’re getting screwed and you don’t know it. And apply that across the board to everything that happens in Washington DC and you’ll get a certain sense for why things don’t work that well.
So, what might we do about that? How might we shift power away from the insiders and back to the end user? How might we, in the terms of disruptive technology, lower those fixed costs of knowing what they’re up to, and shift it to a variable cost? I think that’s why we’re all here. I think that’s what we’re all trying to figure out. Talked about power. Talked about the responsibility of citizenship. Well, let me talk about the opportunity of those things.
We’re in a day and age where Walter Cronkite doesn’t get to tell you what to think. The music-industrial complex doesn’t get to tell you what to listen to. And Washington DC and all of those interest groups that are lined up all down the streets of K Street, all outside the Capitol. They no longer get to tell you how it is that you will enjoy your relationship to the federal government. We could do that for ourselves.
And you’re seeing that. I think a lot of the— We talk about gridlock. I think it’s less about gridlock today than it is about a paradigm shift. I think a lot of people have better access to information. They set up their RSS feeds. If they’re responsible, they don’t just listen to MSNBC or Fox News. They set up a whole feed. I use Twitter to do this. I don’t know what you guys do. And every morning, thousands of my unknown friends have curated a better picture of what’s going on in the world than I could have possibly gotten when I was a kid. That’s power.
And now we can connect with each other. We can raise money outside of the two-party duopoly. We can build Facebook pages with moms literally having a bigger footprint in their local communities than either the Republican party or the Democratic party. That’s power. And understand that real people, the people that are paying the costs of stupid things the government does, we’re busy. We have jobs, we have families, we have kids, we have things that are more important to us than what Congress is up to. I think that’s a rational decision to make.
Social media lowers the cost of participation, but you still have that responsibility. You have to show up. You can’t just sit on the couch and bitch about what they’re doing. You have to appreciate that they’re going to continue to do what they do. The system is designed the way it is to protect power. The only way you get it back is you take it back.
Now, I think the way we do this is as a community respecting individuals, respecting the differences that we would all have. I’ve met a lot of friends in this audience, and we’re working a lot on criminal justice reform. I suspect once we get that done, we’re probably to fight like cats and dogs over something else. Because I’m a Libertarian and Libertarians really aren’t comfortable until you’ve chased everybody else out of the room. It’s just how we are. We can’t help it.
So let me leave you with this. I think there’s an unprecedented opportunity to change our relationship with political power. And I don’t think we need to be afraid of it. I don’t think we have to compromise our core principles in order to do it. But I think we have to be willing to show up and fight that fight. It’s got to be nonviolent. It’s got to be a civil discourse. But it should be relentless, as well. It’s a process, and regardless of who you think should win the presidency next time, winning the presidency has nothing to do with this. Winning a Congressional seat has nothing to do with this. It has to do with understanding the mechanics of driving social change.
And to quote that great strategist George W. Bush, I think it’s a coalition of the willing. There’s a social tolerance to communities that has to be accepted here. There are certain things that we could work on together. And if you don’t want to work on that other thing, you should respect that. And yes, argue about it over beers and call your best friend names. But understand that the community is going to agree to do certain things. And by the way, the community is not a community, it’s thousands and thousands and thousands of voluntary associations across all communities, that sometimes come together and do really important things.
You guys want to join me in this? Anybody? Well, talk to your friends. Maybe they’ve met a Libertarian, too. We don’t bite. Thank you very much.
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