Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

How to Save the World, Part 1


Make a list of all the ways to help the world. They fall naturally into three piles: On the left, you have all the “direct services”: giving people cash, health care, education — anything you can just get up and do. On the right, there’s everything that involves making something new, ideas that can spread and improve people’s lives, from the Internet to double-entry bookkeeping. And in the middle, there’s all the stuff you might call “political”: attempts to help people by amassing or influencing power.

If you think about the big problems we face — the really big ones, the ones that threaten the survival of the species — it seems like the solutions have to come from that middle pile. New technology seems more likely to make more nuclear weapons rather than destroy old ones; there’s no direct service work that can save the world from catastrophic climate change; and neither technology nor charity has a great track record of reducing relative inequality.

So what’s in that middle pile? I can think of eight big ideas (can you suggest more?):

Investigations. Without understanding how the world works, it’s impossible to change it. Investigative journalists can dig up evidence of malfeasance that weaken your the bad guys (as the Guardian has done with the Murdoch empire); statisticians compute numbers that dramatize the size and scope of a problem (as the Himmelhandlers have done for US health care); researchers discover huge new problems that you didn’t even realize existed (as climate scientists have done).

Policy development. Practical men may not be the slaves of some defunct economist, but practical politicians are inevitably the servants of some neglected policy wonk. Ideas like the public option, spectrum auctions, and net neutrality didn’t emerge from late-night cloakroom bull sessions, but were carefully devised and refined by a network of professional policy shops and affiliated academics. These quiet wonks rarely make Politico Playbook, but it’s their clever ideas of yesterday that quickly become the political furniture of tomorrow.

PR. In a democracy, changing the world usually means changing the public’s mind. Brilliant PR people move ideas from dusty papers to heated discussions. This involves conceptual work, figuring out the key reason people should care about wonky proposals (thus “estate tax reform” becomes “abolishing the death tax”). It involves practical work, devising how make these ideas relevant and exciting (thus Halliburton’s contribution to global warming gets dramatized as Survivaballs). And it involves more technical work, figuring out how to package an issue so it slips easily into a reporter’s story (for which it helps to have deep relationships with reporters).

Media. But these days, the media is often so bad that it’s easier to just make some of your own. Whether it’s Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! or Chris Hayes on MSNBC, lefty figures now have television shows from which to spread their stories, while a generation of bloggers has created an entire ecosystem of political news. While most serve a niche audience, the Huffington Post’s traffic is skyrocketing, ensuring millions get hardhitting political coverage snuck in with their bikini slideshows (a lesson Murdoch’s tabloids learned long ago).

Activism. The word activism (and its cognates, campaigning and organizing) are frequently used very broadly, but I’m using it to mean the specific work of encouraging people to take a particular action (other than a vote) to influence the folks in charge. This includes all the obvious ones (signing a petition, calling a decisionmaker, heading to a rally) as well as some of the more unusual ones from Gene Sharp’s list (“haunting” officials, sit-ins, and protest disrobings).

Lobbying. Nobody would ever suggest there was something undemocratic about hiring someone to knock on people’s doors to persuade them to vote for your favorite candidate, yet hiring someone to call members of Congress to persuade them to vote for your favorite bill has accreted the stench of corruption. Sure, in my ideal world, there wouldn’t be forty corporate-funded lobbyists for every member of Congress, but that hardly means unilateral disarmament is the right solution. Building relationships with key public officials and calling in favors is one of the most efficient and effective ways of making a big difference: a quick phone call can get a couple words changed in a bill, which can result in a better life for millions.

Elections. Of course, even better than persuading politicians already in office is getting already-persuaded ones into office in the first place. While the system is in many ways stacked against us, at the end of the day most countries do have reasonably-free elections and it’d be silly not to use them. Dedicated activists, frustrated at liberal politicians’ spinelessness in the face of concentrated power, often seem to think the only solution is to pressure those politicians themselves. But think how much more effective an uncompromising activist can be by being an elected official rather than pressuring them! True, even the best elected officials sometimes make painful compromises but they can also take bold stands in the face of astonishing opposition.

Lawsuits. Ever since Marbury v. Madison, the courts have played a crucial role in the political process and since the 1950s (Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright), “strategic litigation” has been a crucial part of the activist’s toolkit, in the US and around the world. Litigation in general is a powerful activist strategy: class action lawsuits hold powerful corporations accountable, “private attorneys general” enforce important environmental and civil rights laws, and even individual lawsuits have a powerful effect on private actors.

Now these eight ideas can work at any level, from your small town to your whole planet. In this piece, I draw most of my examples from lefties at the US federal level. In part, that’s just because it’s what I know best. But from what little I’ve seen, it’s also usually the most advanced. There’s a ton of money in politics here, which means more ideas get tried here than in most other places. So if an idea’s never been tried in the US, it’s often never been tried altogether. But, either way, do imagine how you’d apply these tools to your town or country.

I hate it when people abuse the word “revolution”, but let’s face it: in the last decade, new technology has completely revolutionized activism. An activism hub I know in Boston provides a perfect illustration the change: On the top floor sits an employee of an online global activism group that, in just a few years, has amassed nearly ten million members. Without leaving his chair (and he rarely leaves his chair), he can write and send emails that mobilize millions of people to email their representatives, make phone calls, and attend local rallies — all across the globe.

Directly below him, one floor down, sits the founder of a 1990s-era activism group. Despite years of effort, his membership is still likely in the hundreds. When he wants to hold an event, he brings in dozens of kids to make phone calls off paper lists. Their work is done hand-to-hand, door-to-door.

This isn’t to say his work is pointless, any more than the invention of television made radio pointless. They’re different kinds of things. But my point is how wildly different they are: online activism isn’t just the old paper lists done faster; the increase in scale has turned it into something completely new.

And it does seem like we need something new. The old systems haven’t solved our big problems and they don’t seem on track to do so. And while it’s certainly better to keep on fighting than to give up, surely it’s worth looking to see what new things we can bring to the battle.

Technology has radically transformed activism, but it’s barely touched the other seven tactics. What would their radical transformation look like?

Investigations: Investigations seem most effective when they generate “outrage moments” — the kind of stories that make you sit up in shock and say “this has to be changed!” These moments can come from anywhere, whether hiding-in-plain-sight stories like George W. Bush’s unprecedented use of signing statements, behind-closed-doors stories like Nelly Bly’s asylum exposé, or stories put together through a great deal of shoe-leather, like the ones that brought down Robert Moses, Richard Nixon, and Rupert Murdoch.

Traditionally, these stories have been like needles in a haystack. Investigative reporters spend years wading through smoke — poring over documents, cultivating sources, checking up on things that turn out to be totally fine — before finding the thing that really catches fire. What the Internet has revolutionized is that journalists can get the fire to come to them.

Imagine you have a juicy story about corporate malfeasance in your town that you want to get out. Where do you go? The local papers are probably already in the company’s pocket and, chances are, you don’t have a friend at the New York Times or know Lowell Bergmann’s home phone number. Search for [journalist tip line] on Google and the first actual result you get is a libertarian think tank in Montana.

WikiLeaks’ real genius was in becoming that obvious place to go. (Think about the prankster who took the subway’s “If You See Something, Say Something” poster and covered Homeland Security’s tipline number with WikiLeaks’ submission URL.) Despite having a full-time staff of two or three, they were able to break hundreds of stories almost from their founding, simply by letting the entire world mail the stories in. Instead of going out and trying to find something interesting, they just had to sift through the incoming mail.

Probably because of their limited manpower, WikiLeaks limited themselves to just authenticating documents. But there’s no reason a real investigative shop needs to be so constrained. Professional investigators can follow up on the tips of whistleblowers and do real reporting on their claims. All over the world, there are people with stories of malfeasance and corruption they’re eager to share. They just need a safe place to go.

Policy development: I’d love a world with more Dean Bakers, but the truth is, there’s something of a glut in good US policy ideas. Even by himself, Dean can churn out at least one new brilliant policy idea each year, but the sclerotic US political system only passes a big new idea once every five. (You’d think things would be better in parliamentary countries, but even there governments seem weirdly cautious.)

But little ideas are passing all the time. Department ministers are always looking for new policy ideas to announce and the US Congress is always passing new bills — true, most of them just rename post offices, but even on the most deadlocked days there are still some things that are moving.

What’s needed is not another think tank of grand policy plans, but more of a just-in-time policy development shop: a group that has its finger on the pulse of what’s moving through Congress right now and can devise small amendments and little technical corrections to make the bills significantly better. And it’s not just parliaments and legislatures: regulatory agencies and government departments are also proposing new changes and deciding on new policies all the time.

Sure, each of these little ideas pales in comparison to the power of one big idea, but over time a steady stream of them add up to a big change of its own. After all, it’s we’re not just talking about the Sheboygan city council here — even tiny changes to minor Swedish bills can affect millions of people or change the rules for most multinationals.

This is how corporate lobbyists play the game: you (usually) don’t see Exxon trying to pass the huge Give Oil Companies More Money Act of 2011; instead they have a series of pet tax breaks and regulatory loosenings that they try to sneak into every other bill that goes by. And they’re constantly keeping their eyes peeled for bills that might affect their business or, with some minor modifications, could be made to. We ought to be doing the same.

This hasn’t happened yet because such a wide range of little ideas requires a wide range of technical expertise. But the Internet rescues us yet again! The world is filled with very technical experts who can only dream of seeing their ideas made reality. It’s now eminently possible to build an electronic rolodex of experts in every field who you can email bill drafts to for a rapid response.

Media: Before the Internet, there were hard constraints about when you got your news. The newspaper came every day, the magazine every month, books after a period of years, radio and TV shows at specified times, etc. The Internet has upended all that.

On the one hand, people no longer have to wait “for the news” to hear about something — with liveblogging and Twitter and email we now can pretty much hear the news as it happens, even before the newspaper sites have a chance to write it up or the cable news team can put it on the ’prompter. (During the invasion of Tripoli, Twitter was full of people mocking the cable news networks for taking so long to cover it.)

But this dramatic acceleration in speed has also created a more desperate need for context — which the Internet can also fulfill. Unlike a static book or magazine article, a frequently-updated page on Wikipedia can continually be the best place to go to learn the outline of a story. A breaking news Twitter feed won’t make much sense unless you know who the characters are and understand the outline of the plot, but nobody wants to refresh a Wikipedia page over and over and try to discern what’s changed.

That’s why I think the real winner in Internet news will be a site that manages to yoke these together: a continually-updated summary of the basic story, a quick way to catch up on the major points since you last visited, and then a comprehensive firehose of every little update for when you’re totally obsessed with each new detail.

Building this doesn’t require a dramatic investment in news bureaus around the globe; it’s a problem of aggregation. All you need is a handful of talented summarizers and news junkies to pull everything into one place.

Lobbying: US progressive groups frequently hire progressive PR shops to get their stories in the press, but you almost never hear about one hiring a lobbyist to get their bill through the House. The stigma against being a lobbyist is so strong that even people like Mike Lux or the Glover Park Group go to great lengths to avoid using the term. Now, to be fair, there are folks like the Raben Group who admit to being progressive lobbyists — they’re just awfully rare.

But the biggest difference is the lack of an institutional lobbyist like the Chamber of Commerce. Even though the Chamber obviously takes money in exchange for lobbying work, it’s a not-for-profit, not a professional services company. And, as a result, their backing means more than that of a typical lobbying firm. Having the Chamber lobby for you means “this is the position of business” rather than “this is the position of a business”. There’s an implicit solidarity across industries.

There’s really nothing like that for progressives in the US. (The AFL-CIO comes close, but there’s obviously a big difference between labor and the progressive movement.) I’m not even going to try and pretend this idea has something to do with the Internet. After all, lobbying is in many ways a person-to-person game of persuasion; it would be rather surprising if new technology could dramatically change it. But I think it’s a huge void in the progressive movement right now and probably the single most effective thing that could be built.

After all, the best study on the topic found that 40% of US lobbying projects succeeded — that’s a batting average that would put any activist to shame. And it’s not simply because corporate lobbyists have so much money — the study found that the amount of money spent made very little difference to whether you won or lost. Now we can quibble about the methodology, but the logic seems clear: Trying to make policy by working with the people who actually make policy is an obvious win.

Elections: From the armchair vantage point of a political pundit, it’s obvious how to move American politics to the left: identify promising progressive political candidates, run them for low-level offices, and, if they succeed, support them for higher and higher office. Where you think you can move a district to the left, run a workable primary challenger. Where you can’t, support the Democrat.

The trouble is that there’s no one who can listen. There’s no grand electoral mastermind trying to push politics to the left. The Democratic Party isn’t an ideological group, but a membership organization whose primary job is supporting the politicians who are members. So instead there’s just a fragmentary network of funders, consultants, staffers, recruiters, politicians, and the like, each scrambling for their own self-interest.

Running for office as a political novice is just asking to get fleeced. Instead of a trusted nonprofit you can turn to for help, your only options are wildly overpriced political consultants. These consultants recommend you spend more money on their political consultant friends and soon you find yourself swallowed by a financial sinkhole of consultants, each of whom are constantly advising you to spend even more money on their services (polls, direct mail, TV ads, paid canvassers, social media).

Much of the work they charge so much for could be easily replaced by some clever software and a bunch of volunteers. And much of what can’t turns out to be politically irrelevant. But the consultants aren’t interested in optimizing themselves out of a job and the politicians are too harried and too transient to take the time needed to actually fix the problem.

What’s needed is a player with a longer-term view to bring order to the system: to recruit and support promising candidates, to help them spend money on things that actually work instead of things that pad the pockets of their consultants, to bring efficiencies of bargaining power and scale and innovation to the standard electoral toolkit, and to determine movement-wide priorities and help ensure they get the support they need. A real progressive political machine.

It doesn’t take a lot to get started. As Sasha Issenberg brilliantly details, Dave Carney managed to do a lot of it for the Republicans pretty much all by himself: he bargained down consultants to get better deals, brought in academics to figure out what really worked, and threw elbows to try to make sure money got spent on the stuff that actually matters.

Lawsuits: Lawyers are even better at padding their bills than political consultants. Because they’re paid by the hour, they actually have a disincentive to use new technology to automate the repetitive portions of their work. That’s why instead of having a computer program that can spit out a standard privacy policy for your website, you have to pay a guy in a suit $500 an hour to copy-and-paste one for you and change all the names.

But there’s no reason a nonprofit needs to be like this. By having lawyers on salary, they can be incentivized to get more done rather than bill more. And a world of new technology can be built to support them. Obviously each case has its own unique aspects, but there’s a ton that’s incredibly routine and can be largely automated, especially where the law is already clear.

And the non-routine work can often be handled by non-lawyers. For example, people are constantly filing of Freedom of Information Act requests that the government rejects for specious reasons. The Freedom of Information Act lets you file a lawsuit so an independent judge can review the government’s rejection and force them to comply with the law. But lawyers are so expensive that most FOIA filers never bother hiring one.

Now it’s true — each FOIA lawsuit involves some unique details about the nature of the request and the denial, but those can be mostly handled by the requestor — the actual legal components of filing the suit are pretty much the same regardless. So some simple software could let FOIA filers autogenerate a lawsuit and the real lawyer could just give it a quick read-through before filing.

Prosecuting the case is also pretty simple — the judge just has to review the material and see whether it actually meets one of the specified FOIA exemptions. But usually it doesn’t even come to that. Like most people, the US Government magically gets a lot more cooperative when facing the business end of an actual lawsuit. Most parties settle once they realize there are lawyers on the other end of an issue, which means your tiny amount of legal talent has a huge multiplier effect.

But as much as there is to do within each of these fields, the real revolution comes from combining them. I first realized this when I started combining lobbying with activism. Suddenly the lobbying got more effective, because it was backed by an army of hundreds of thousands. And the activism got more effective too, because it was targeted at exactly the things our lobbying showed were the most crucial decision points.

Now it’s true, there are lots of organizations that have a replacement-level lawyer and a replacement-level activist and a replacement-level PR person. They do some lawsuits and some press releases and send out a few emails. It’s not particularly inspiring. That’s how teams are: a bunch of mediocre people make a mediocre team. But when you have great people in a team, that’s when it can become much more than the sum of its parts: imagine an organization that not only had a brilliant, pioneering person in each of these roles — but had them work as a team. The synergies are incredible:

If you’re an investigator, policy development people can devise new whistleblower laws to protect your sources; the PR team and media can play you up as the go-to place to send scoops, the activists can organize victims to detail their own encounters with the villains you’re investigating, the lobbyists can get politicians to subpoena documents for you, and the lawyers can file suits and get crucial evidence through discovery.

If you’re a policy development person, the investigators can tell you which problems need to be fixed, PR people can help you frame the issue, activists can collect stories about how things work on the ground, lobbyists can tell you what could actually pass, electoral consultants can tell you how it’ll play with the electorate, and lawyers can help you figure out how to write the actual bill.

If you do PR or media, investigators can find horrible outrages for you to tell people about, policy developers can come up with brilliant ideas for solving them for you to promote, activists can rally the public behind them (another story you can push), lobbyists can get members of Congress to speak out about it (always easier to book an elected), electoral consultants can find you candidates to promote, and lawyers can stage dramatic courtroom scenes you can publicize.

If you do activism, it’s much the same: investigators can find horrible outrages to rally people around, policy developers can devise solutions to them, PR people can figure out how to frame your actions to catch the public’s imagination, media outlets can tell the larger story of your fight, lobbyists can tell you who to pressure and how to have the biggest effect, electoral consultants can get aspiring candidates to join your campaign, and lawyers can make sure no one stifles your right to protest.

If you do lobbying, investigators can dig up embarrassing dirt on your political enemies, policy developers can come up with bills to get passed, PR people can help frame what are often pretty technical issues, media outlets can dramatize and publicize the struggle, activists can back you up with an army of real outraged people with personal stories, electoral experts can ensure there’s an electoral cost to voting the wrong way, and lawyers can help you sort through the technical mumbo-jumbo.

If you do elections, investigators can research your opponents, policy developers can devise your campaign platform, PR people can come up with clever slogans, ads, and framing events, media outlets can tell the story of your campaign, activists can help you build a grassroots base, lobbyists can get the influential figures in your district to endorse you, and lawyers can make sure the polls stay open and people get a fair chance to vote.

If you’re a lawyer, investigators can find things to sue about, policy developers can fix the laws when you lose (and can come up with new qui tam statutes that let you make money by enforcing the law), PR people and media outlets can help you take your case to the public (and thereby the jury), activists can organize potential plaintiffs for you, lobbyists can get legislators make helpful statements about legislative intent, and electoral consultants can make sure the right judges get elected.

It’s crazy how well these things go together. We’ve seen it a little bit in the Murdoch case: investigative journalists dug up dirt about crimes at Murdoch’s publications, policy developers came up with reasons this could be used to reject Murdoch’s acquisition of BSkyB, the media made the story a huge issue, activists flooded regulators with requests to delay the merger, members of parliament started subpoenaing new documents, which led to more journalistic investigations.

But this could be standard operating procedure: Your investigator uncovers a spate of secret toxic dumping just outside New York City, your policy developer comes up with an amendment to beef up environmental enforcement against the chemical companies responsible, the PR team gets the scandal in the papers, your media outlet produces a special report, your activist organizes thousands of local residents with a petition, your lobbyist now have an entire package to shop around Albany, where the legislators are freaked out because your electoral consultant has polls showing this could be a major campaign issue — all while your lawyers are filing class action suits against the dumpers — and look! discovery hints at even more crimes, starting the whole cycle over again. The polluters have no idea what hit them!

Now, it’s true: not every story is exciting enough to become front-page news and an election issue, but stories powerful enough to become viral online petitions usually also make great news stories and important campaign issues (indeed, they usually already are). So making this kind of magic happen doesn’t require finding the rare story that happens to hit a whole bunch of different buttons — it’s just a matter of finding a good story and pushing it out through a whole bunch of different channels. And the world is a big place — there’s always a powerful story to be found somewhere.

OK, but even if we can come up with stories to work this magic on, we still need people to do it. It’s hard enough to start a new activism group — starting up an investigative journalism outlet, think tank, PR company, news site, lobby shop, electoral consultancy, and law firm at the same time sounds impossible.

But step back a second. In each of these fields, there are enormous returns to talent. A sharp and well-connected PR person can quickly get several major outlets to cover a story, while a novice will often spend days cold-calling reporters to no effect. What if, in each of these fields, we just hired one really talented person?

You can get a lot done with just one amazing investigator, one brilliant policy wonk, one well-rolodexed PR flack, one compelling blogger, one canny activist, one smooth lobbyist, or one hard-bitten electoral consultant. Now maybe your hotshot lawyer needs a couple paralegals, but that’s not much to ask. Now imagine you hire all of them.

Think of what this Dream Team could accomplish together. Put them all in the same office and have them eat lunch together and it’d be like a Bell Labs for politics, a white-hot center of brilliant political innovations.

Eventually, of course, you’d want to back them up with a similarly-talented support staff of administrative assistants, designers, programmers, fundraisers, pollsters, etc. There’d be big economies of scale from combining all of these things: your average law firm doesn’t need world-class programmers, but if you can split them between helping automate legal drudgery, building new online organizing tools, and scouring through government data dumps, it makes a lot more sense (and makes for a vastly more appealing job).

And there’d be some basic infrastructure for everyone to share. For example, a unified contact management system would make it easy for the lobbyist to discover that the PR guy went to college with a key Senate staffer.

There are lots of ways to fund an initial pilot of this — especially if you know a rich person willing to chip in a couple million dollars. But if you want it to last and grow, it needs a sustainable funding source of its own; ideally one made up of the grassroots members you’re fighting for, rather than some existing power base.

Email organizing has proved very successful at self-financing, in large part because the membership feels a direct connection to the activism they’re funding. Donors get to watch the TV ad that will be aired before chipping in $20, they’ve spent their own time signing petitions and making phone calls, so they clearly believe the work is important.

And in return, they provide accountability to the organization. It’s difficult for an online organizing group to run off and do a campaign its members don’t support: they won’t sign the petitions, make the phone calls, or provide the donations the campaign needs.

But most of these jobs don’t require an audience like that. You don’t need an army of small-dollar donors to help develop policy or sit in on your lobbying meetings.

Now each tactic has its own potential revenue stream: lawsuits often win money and attorneys’ fees, a lobby and PR shop can be rented out to other groups, election campaigns are, of necessity, miniature fundraising machines. And perhaps enough funding can be patched together from these various opportunities.

But if email activism provides the ignition and this patchwork of other sources provides the fuel, then I think the accelerant comes from the one other tactic with an audience: media.

If something like this succeeds, it’ll be an amazing story. A dream team of talented, dedicated crusaders from all walks of life taking on powerful forces each week — and winning! It sounds like something out of a television show (and, who knows, maybe it would make a good television show), but it would certainly make for a good blog. Anyone who’s been inside of these fights knows the thrill of a good campaign story.

Now obviously you can’t tell the public everything that you’re doing; to be effective, some stuff has to be played close to the vest. But I think a great deal of it can be opened up and become a thrilling, compelling adventure. It’d have regular stories of shocking malfeasance, clever ideas for how to stop it, and tales of people fighting back: in the streets, in Congress, in the courts, and at the ballot box. And the readers of these stories can become sustaining funders of the work. (You can even remember their credit card numbers and provide a one-click donation button next to each thrilling update.)

Not everyone will want the blow-by-blow; crucial moments and victory recaps can be sent to a mailing list along with the standard email activism fundraisers. But I think having a place to tell the larger story is an important piece of accountability and has a decent chance of being an major source of members in its own right.

But the blog is much more than a good story: it’s a unique inside account of the process of making real change.

The only way humans ever get good at something is through deliberate practice: working hard to try something, then watching the results to see if it worked. But with all these tactics fragmented, as they are today, nobody’s responsible for seeing if the movement as a whole is really working — everyone can pass the buck. When the climate change bill doesn’t pass, the policy development people say it wasn’t lobbied for hard enough, the lobbyists say there wasn’t enough grassroots pressure, the activists say there wasn’t enough PR to persuade the population, the PR people say there wasn’t enough there wasn’t enough dramatic dirt about carbon polluters, and so on.

But if the dream team fails, it will clearly be their failure. And if they succeed, it will be their success. After each campaign, they can use the media person’s account as the basis for an after-action report, a thorough investigation of what went right and what went wrong, so they can learn how to do better next time. Perhaps there’s a crucial tactic missing from this picture or they need a technique that hasn’t been invented yet or one department really needs to step up its game. Whatever it is, the important thing is that there will be no one else to pass the buck to. They’ll have to learn the lesson, find something to change, and try again.

And that’s why all of this is merely part one. To really save the world will require much more innovation and refinement. But the first part is building a system to do that work — writing the next part is up to them.

July 28, 2011


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