USS Clueless - The political power of the web

Stardate 20011227.1516

(On Screen): Farm subsidies cost the US government an enormous amount of money every year, some $20 billion. Where does it all go? Do we need more? Can we make do with less? Is it being wasted?

There is an organization opposed to the current system who think the current system sucks, and decided to do something about it. But rather than organizing protests and mailing out fliers, They sued under the Freedom of Information Act and got hold of the records for every single payment made under the program since 1995, and then put all of them online. As soon as they did that, the fox was loose in the henhouse. They've gotten more than eleven million hits on the site so far. Word spread in the farming states like wildfire, and everyone on the farms there started checking to see how much their neighbors were getting -- and the guy in the next county, and basically finding out where it was all really going. And now not only are the Environmental Working Group concerned about it, so are the farmers. Those who were not getting much are now jealous; those who were getting a lot are embarrassed. Reactions have been mixed but tending towards negative, and this little dose of sunshine pretty much guarantees now that the program will be changed.

There are various ways of looking at this program, each less than totally true. It isn't quite the case that it's a subsidy to the big agriculture companies (like good old Archer Daniels Midland). It isn't quite the case that it's a way for farm-state congressmen to use the public coffers to buy votes. It isn't quite the case that it's a way to keep food prices in the US artificially low, or to keep American farm output high for export purposes. And it isn't quite the case that it is a way of preserving the "single family farm" as the backbone of American culture. There's some truth to all those, of course, but the reality is much more complicated and yet more simple: it just grew. (Parkinson's Law kicked in, as it always does with government.)

And bureaucrats are like mushrooms: they do the best in the dark. So the EWG's bright light here may have been the single best way of effecting political change that a group that size could have used. From the sound of it this is raising such a stink even in the farm states that a pretty serious overhaul of the program will now become inevitable. Congress will be forced to ask fundamental questions about what the program is intended to accomplish and what resources it really needs.

And none of this would have been possible even as little as five years ago, because its impact is based on the ability of individuals to access and search that data, and that really could only be handled by the web as we now know it, with nearly universal access. (Even those not online knew someone who was.)

It's been recognized for a long time that the web would have a serious impact on our political process. Now we're beginning to see it happen. And I'm all for it.

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