The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The playing field of public policy

I was just reading a blog post about Afghanistan policy and man, I just could not get interested in it. Then it occurred to me that this is really quite a change from, say, five years ago, when I definitely still self-identified as a wonk-in-training. Or a wannabe wonk, at least.

So I was ruminating on that and without really intending to, I tweeted this little sequence, which I will now assemble here Carmody-style:

  • Once, long ago, I really REALLY wanted to be a policy wonk. No longer. Public policy once seemed very LARGE to me. Now it seems… small?
  • Initially I was convinced that policy (esp economic policy) defined the playing field—the space-time continuum! What a thing to master!
  • But in fact, there are bigger fields on which policy itself is played. Longer games. Supersets. This is @longnow-inflected thinking, obvs.
  • And for me, it’s an open question whether digging into (ephemeral?) policy right now helps you understand (and play!) the longer game.

Nothing to add; I just wanted to reproduce it here. I know a lot of Snarkmarket readers (and at least two Snarkmarket bloggers) are a bit wonkish. I wonder: Do you find your interest and engagement in public policy waxing or waning lately? What’s your own trajectory been?

And I realize “public policy” is ridiculously broad. I’m thinking a bit more of macroeconomic and foreign policy than domestic policy—but my observation above applies across the board. My utter lack of interest in health care reform perfectly balances Matt’s deep knowledge.


Completely off the cuff: my trajectory is coming past where you are and wanting to go to where Matt is, and lots of other people I know are, and feeling a giant wall of viscous mind glass between me and them. And everytime I try to brave the cascades of translucent goo it seizes up around me and spits me back out into the realm of conceptual (not emotional!) apathy. Emotionally I desperately, desperately want to get past this barrierr. I do not want to be back where I just don’t care at all, at any level. But cognitively I always get sucked back into media land. And it seems clear to me that the way to build a boat through the goo, for me and everyone like me, is, in fact, in media land, but I can’t . . . .quite. . . .figure it out.

Matt Penniman says…

I think I’ve gone from being not at all interested in public policy, to very interested, to interested but somewhat chastened. I feel like public policy represents the “levers of power”, the real pivot points that change history for better or for worse, that make huge vast differences in millions of peoples’ lives.

And yet, precisely because they are so important, the number of forces acting on them and the constraints on any substantive accomplishment are baffling. Even something as mundane as starting a community media center in the Lansing area runs into a thick morass of impediments and confusions. It sometimes feels like policy is the only way to make real positive change; other times it seems that change, if it comes, will have to come from somewhere else.

Tim Carmody says…

I think that most of us tend to proceed on the basis of 1) community pressure and 2) felt crises. If all of a sudden everyone around you is talking about copyright law or energy policy, you’ll probably think “whoa! This is important! I should find something out about this.”

But that doesn’t totally translate in the same way that a felt crisis does. For instance, I was interested in health care reform before and during the Presidential campaign, and in the earlier months of this year — but I got really interested after I spent a month in the hospital this year. I don’t remember talking with Gavin Craig once about K-12 schools when we were in college; since we both had kids, we talk about it a lot.

Tim Carmody says…

Felt crises don’t just have to impact you or your family/friends as individuals — but it helps.

The thing about a crisis, though, is that at its limit, it forces you to operate on every channel. If a particular policy change can help or hurt you, you’ll obsess on that. If you can bypass the public/legal sphere altogether, and find some way to take individual/collective action, you’ll do that too.

The civil rights movement is a good example. You’ve got folks arguing in the Supreme Court on the one hand, and demonstrating against segregation on the other, but also striking separate deals with corporations, organizing grass-roots support systems, trying to produce art, swaying public opinion, etc. There isn’t a thing those men and women didn’t do to try to upend and uphold policy (depending on the policy), but they never saw it as the beginning or the end. In so many respects, we’ve forgotten just how good and how versatile they were.

Tim Carmody says…

Also, the serial tweet post is the medium of the future. It’s like montage-driven cinema.

Yes! The pause between tweets is the cut, the blink. The breath. That’s brilliant, actually.

Waxing. Definitely waxing.

It’s increasingly insane to me just how much of life in a society like the US in the 21st Century is an echo of a long-forgotten policy movement. You watch something like Mad Men, and even though it depicts a time before you even existed, you might feel as though fragments of it are traced in your memory somehow. I seem to remember a moment when, by and large, people smoked. Smoking was ubiquitous. The no-smoking lights on planes still made sense because there were flights where one could smoke. A smokeless bar was almost an oxymoron.

Then you read Henry Waxman (as interpreted by Joshu Green) describing the decades-long, glacial policy process that brought us to this present world, where I can go days without encountering the scent of a cigarette. How deliberate and difficult that was. The tiny hallway conversations that made this changed world a reality. And you have to think, Wow. Policy.

Or locally. Our streets were obliterated with snow this year. It was an awful confluence of factors – two big snowfalls right around the holidays (when plow drivers had to be paid extra), a see-saw of temperatures that churned out fluffy, wet snow and turned it instantly into ice, and city budget cuts that left fewer drivers to plow more streets. But among the biggest factors in the mix was a policy reality – Minneapolis’ snow plowing cycle after a big storm is 48 hours, giving the snow enough time to turn to ice and become a problem. St. Paul, with its 24-hour snow-plowing cycle, is a driver’s dream. It was one of a number of policies hashed out during an election cycle a few years back, and the consequence is a tangible reality felt in the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

The taste of my water. The clarity of my sky. The ingredients in my food. The speed of my Internet connection. The routes I run around in the morning. The ways I refer to and think about the man I’ve dated for two years. All of these things intertwine in deep and constant ways with policy. It’s quite breathtaking, really.

Oddly – and somewhat contrarily to your post – I feel as though this is more true for domestic than foreign policy. Foreign policy – perhaps because I know it less well – seems like it has a far quieter effect on events in the world than murky, not-at-all-codified things such as relationships and perceptions. I look at something like the recent climate summit in Copenhagen, and I think, “Wow, the course of our world rests in some not-insignificant part on whether a Chinese diplomat might have needed to posture for a domestic constituency.

Tim Carmody says…

Cut. Paste. Post. It deserves a place on the front page.


Somebody pulled a Carmody!

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