Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Long Tail in Politics

Arnold Kling is an economist who writes for an economics blog that has some very interesting stuff. In today's post (which was republished at Tech central he writes about the long tail in politics.

I first understood the idea of a long tail in a site called Change This! Change This!- that is a series of manifestos on a wide range of subjects. Some a very silly, others are quite substantive. The notion of the long tail came about when people started to understand that digital copies and distribution systems began to create after markets for related products. For example, assume that when Lance Armstrong rode to his seventh Tour de France win, people went to Amazon to get books about a) the Tour de France, b) Lance, c) Cancer survivors, d) French bicycles. The marketing model for Amazon will suggest related products - so in addition to selling books or memorabilia in one of those areas, the system might also discover an obscure book by another author from perhaps 1975, that covers the same subject. The marketing and production costs for the earlier (and possibly out of copyright material) are close to zero. So the net sale on 20 or 100 copies of the work is almost pure profit. That happens in any product that can be digitized.

Kling makes the argument that there is also a long tail for people in politics who do not consider themselves affiliated with any specific brand of politics. Those could be either independents or various other flavors of thinkers who do not feel attracted to the current brands of politics. Because politicians understand that they cannot hold on to these voters they move into some interesting behaviors. First, they add pork and lots of it. Second, they go more heavily into theatrical politics (Cindy Sheehan, Terry Schaivo, etc.) Third, because they cannot be sure of who they are talking to they actually isolate themselves from the general voter. They spend a lot of time with friends - in carefully constructed situations and not much time in places where they are not sure of the crowd. But Kling argues that ultimately people are less and less attracted to the two party system and thus become part of the long tail.

His suggestion is that we could evolve into "virtual federalism" a renewed argument for a Tiebout like environment where people begin to pick and choose what parts of the system they want to deal with. I am not sure his argument is correct. Why would politicians want to change a system that fundamentally works to their advantage. The combination of pork, coupled with theater and distance makes politics a lot less risky. Isn't that just another good example of classic rent seeking?

Kling's article deserves a lot of thought and comment.

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