Bootleggers & Baptists: XL- Joe Rogan: Team Spotify v. The Medical Establishment

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INTRODUCTION:

Veteran stand-up comedian, mixed-martial arts commentator, and podcaster; Joe Rogan has come under fire for promoting COVID-19 misinformation. Business Insider lists six examples of Rogan proliferating misinformation about COVID-19 within the past two years. Arguably the proverbial “straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back” was last month (episode # 1757)when Rogan had a controversial virologist, Dr. Robert Malone, on as a guest. Prompting 270 medical experts to send an open letter to Spotify to address the inaccurate information disseminated through Rogan’s podcast. The letter expressed: “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy..”.

However, is this statement even true? Do platforms have a responsibility (legally or morally) to moderate and suppress factually incorrect content? Even though Spotify is a Swedish-based company, this rhetoric parallels the talking points of the Section 230 debate in the United States. Section 230, in most instances, shields service providers from liability for the media generated by content producers. This amendment of the Communications Act of 1934 (230 falls under the Communications Decency Act of 1996). Section 230 states :

‘….‘(c) PROTECTION FOR ‘GOOD SAMARITAN’ BLOCKING AND SCREENING OF OFFENSIVE MATERIAL.— ‘‘(1) TREATMENT OF PUBLISHER OR SPEAKER.—No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. ‘‘(2) CIVIL LIABILITY.—No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of— ‘‘(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or ‘‘(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1)….” (p.84).

This subsection of Section 230 could easily extend to streaming services. Spotify exercises no editorial discretion and merely provides the tools to content creators to distribute music and podcasts. ****Ethically, there are free speech concerns regarding social pressure to moderate and censor content. While the First Amendment only protects citizens from government censorship, it is evident that Spotify is not troubled by the content produced on Joe Rogan’s podcast. If Spotify takes any action, it would be due to public scrutiny.

BOOTLEGGERS AND BAPTISTS:

The outcry for Spotify to address the JRE podcast’s proliferation of misinformation may not have manifested in a formal policy proposal, but there are still individuals that stand to benefit. Making the JRE controversy a perfect scenario for a Bootleggers and Baptist (1983) coalition dynamic. One subset of the coalition acting as the public face presented the moral argument for Spotify acting against Joe Rogan. Quietly, lurking in the background, are the callous beneficiaries hoping their ulterior motives are not recognized. 

The Baptists in this scenario are the experts that drafted the open letter to Spotify and other notable public health professionals that have vocally expressed condemnation of Rogan’s commentary on the pandemic. One of these renowned crusaders is Dr. Katrine Wallace of the University of Illinois, who catastrophically describes Rogan as “a menace to public health,” particularly for espousing anti-vaccine rhetoric”. Whether or not you find this statement hyperbolic or false, it still conveys an ethical concern for the influence of Rogan’s podcast influence on public health. Therefore, making Wallace and like-minded professionals Baptists. Although, there is the potential that Wallace is a Dual-Role Actor, simultaneously being concerned about public health and seeing an opportunity to raise her public profile. After all, she is a blogger.

There are two categories of Bootleggers that operate as silent beneficiaries in this scenario. The first group is the other Podcasters that distribute their content through Spotify. If the JRE podcast becomes removed from Spotify or suffers other forms of sanctions, that would mean less competition for Tim Ferriss. The second category of Bootleggers would be the medical establishment. Not to treat this faction as an amorphous blob, considering it is a collective consortium of various people, organizations, and businesses, it would be nearly impossible to identify all the potential players in the subset of the anti-JRE coalition. The vast networks of the medical establishment are so pervasive it has even been referred to as the Medical-Industrial Complex, paralleling the concept of the Military-Industrial Complex.

There are a lot of individuals that stand to profit from keeping the status quo intact. Any professional possessing heterodox perspectives stand potentially disrupt the current public consensus resulting in fewer profits for pharmaceutical companies and other appurtenant facets of the industry. Over the past couple of years, there has been an ongoing assault on expert consensus. In a world of “alternative facts, the gap has continued to widen between popular opinion and professional consensus. Few things can be threatening as a credentialed professional who holds positions that go against the grain of the establishment. These individuals appeal to a public that is disillusioned and skeptical of expertise. The medical establishment aimed to reclaim its throne by targeting influential voices that have contrary views. In the hopes that people will stop patronizing herbalists and reading articles written by Robert Malone. When persuasion is ineffective, censorship becomes the preferred mechanism. 

POTENTIAL SOLUTION?:

The problem remains of how do we distinguish fact from fiction? Is it Dr. Malone or the medical establishment that is being dishonest? The average American citizen lacks the knowledge, time, and resources to effectively qualify the claims of either faction in the COVID debate. This situation parallels the phenomenon of rational ignorance examined in Public Choice Theory; deference to experts and public figures is cost-effective to the average layman. No need to read dozens of medical journals filled with opaque jargon. When there are have several sets of experts with competing opinions whom do you listen to? It is possible to find an expert in any field that can confirm our priors.

One brilliant suggestion comes from UCF professor and scholar Enrique Guerra-Pujol, who suggests we should utilize prediction markets to assess the veracity of conspiracy theories. In any decision-making process, we are grappling with the fact that no one can have all the information. As stated in the Hayekian Knowledge Problem; information is naturally dispersed, meaning effective top-down decision-making is impossible. If we could hypothetically remedy this by creating an incentive-based mechanism that can aggregate all perspectives on a given topic we will have a better (not perfect) outcome. By including the vaccine skeptics rather than excluding them, they become part of the validation process. When we look at range-voting in jury trials it becomes quite apparent that even including erroneous perspectives does not drastically impact the overall outcome.

Perhaps instead of capitulating to public pressure to remove all of Joe Rogan’s “COVID episodes, Spotify could run a user poll or a modified prediction market (to avoid the ire of SEC and CFTC) to get the listener feedback on the veracity of the content of these episodes. Instead of removing the episodes, if deemed to be inaccurate, Spotify should merely place disclaimers.

****Correction- The 230 immunity argument does not hold up for two reasons:

  1. Spotify does exercise editorial discretion.
  2. Spotify may satisfy the legal definition of a publisher.

Time to Restore the Gold Standard- Part V(b): Stability

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Even most fiat currency advocates understand this point and attempt to utilize various monetary rules to create some sense of expected steady depreciation of the dollar. The pretense of “stability” is merely an illusion engendered by the rigidity of a rule that limited the amount of inflation allotted per year. The rules-bound approach in the United States permits 2% inflation per year to allow for economic growth. In an attempt to achieve the aims of “full employment” and monetary stability. Few question the fidelity to which the Federal Reserve has adhered to this 2 % annual inflation target. For instance, in 2007 during the nascent period of the economic crisis, the inflation rate was a staggering 4.08%.More than double what is conventionally allotted by the Federal Reserve. Demonstrating that these monetary rules that are meant to maintain the integrity of our money supply are sensitive to exigencies of purported economic calamity. It is well documented that the subprime housing crisis that emerged in 2007 was caused by our governing institutions using the money supply to manipulate interest rates. The prospect of the U.S central bank maintaining the value of our money is marred by the fact they do not consistently abide by these rules. Unfortunately, when it is politically convenient to loosen these parameters of these rules, the Fed does so. Generally, they could not anticipate the emergence of an emergency requiring accommodations in their money management constraints. If the Federal Reserve did unwaveringly adhere to the 2% rule this still is not necessarily the type of stability that should be welcomed. Irrespective of the annual rate of economic growth, this is still at the expense of the purchasing power of the dollar. While the rate of inflation may be predictable, it is a signal that the value of our money will only continue to decrease. The goal of holding any commodity is for the value to increase or remain constant not to wither away to oblivion. 

The instability caused by the Federal Reserve failing to rigidity follow its own monetary rules has consequences that reverberate throughout the economy. Prices function as a source of information to consumers and producers, that even includes those that produce and hold various forms of money. If the Federal Reserve has been augmenting the money supply to lower interest rates this distorts the loans markets for lenders and borrowers. The argument that the short-run instability of gold makes it necessary for state intervention in the money markets, does not hold water. As lenders and borrows can enter into contractual agreements setting interest requirements; even adjust for immediate price-level variances (p.32). Any attempt to manipulate the money supply to encourage consumption does nothing more than to manipulate the integrity of the money supply Only serving to encourage economic actors to engage in malinvestment, arguably creating moral hazard. Not only does lowering interest rates alter the money supply, but it also encourages the individual who could not otherwise afford to borrow money to do so. Despite the fact, the natural interest rate of the loan is unproportionate to their income and necessary expenses. Unfortunately leading may make borrowers inclined to take uncalculated risks created by an illusory interest rate. That invariably is unsustainable and eventually will be forced back to natural rates, regardless of any distortions the market will self-correct.

If the Federal Reserve’s management rules are effective at warding off volatility, we would expect there to be wild variances in the value of gold-backed money in the pre-central banking era. After being confronted with the number it becomes quite evident that the facts do not comport with popular opinion. One only needs to review the dramatic increase in the rate of inflation in the post-gold economy to see the full effect. From the period of the period between 1790 and 1913 a $100 basket of consumer goods only experienced an $8 variance ($108 in 1913) (p.5-6). However, that same basket of goods had reached the cost of $2,422 by 2008(p5-6), demonstrating the hasten pace of dollar depreciation. It is calculated that the overall rate of inflation between 1879 and 1913 was a meager 0.01 % on a classical gold standard. It should be noted that similar numbers are reflected in the 93 years Great Britain retained a freely fluctuating gold standard (p.3). How skeptics can deride the notion of gold-backed money without address the long-run stability is perplexing. The political and economic establishment has effectively become short-sighted through praising immediate stability over enduring integrity. There is a deeper underlying question regarding this disjointed preference, what does it say about our society? Has our propensity for instant gratification become so entrenched in our culture that it has bled into our governing institutions? If our purported “experts” exalt the virtues of instantaneous band-aid measures over long-run functionality, then the answer to this question is self-evident.

Bootleggers & Baptists: XVI: Terrorism and Prediction Markets

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The program was derided by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, some of whom called it “bizarre,” “unbelievably stupid” and “offensive.” Rumsfeld himself said he canceled the program “an hour after I read about it.” ( Wired ,July 2003)

Commonly, government programs engender partisanship and opportunism. Political actors are more successful to capitalize on such initiatives are controversial. This effect is only magnified when the program is headed by a polarizing figure. One prevalent example of this was DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) used Prediction Markets to gather intelligence on future geopolitical events. Once more contentious questions such as terrorist attacks and assassination attempts ended up being addressed, the program began to be publicly criticized.

 PAM (Policy Analysis Market) implemented by the Information Awareness Office, a counter-terrorism project ran by DARPA. PAM operated like a future exchanges market for predicting the likelihood of geopolitical events. Including but not limited to terrorist attacks. At various phases of the program, participants (consultation firms, colleges, think tanks) were provided a sum of money to “wager” on the likelihood of certain political events happening (p.77). Those with accurate answers were awarded a larger sum of money.

Figure 1

E.g.) Phase I: Participants were provided $100,000 by the IAO to wager and awarded $750,000 for accurate predictions (p.77).

Mirroring the model used in both past and future prediction markets. Dating back to Robin Hanson first pioneering prediction markets while consulting on project Xanadu in the late-1980s, these markets have always been an incentive-driven phenomenon. It is one thing to claim certainty, but it is another to be willing to die on that hill. Especially when money is on the line. Effectively aligning incentives towards accuracy and rigorous research versus armchair speculation. The objective being the firm, organization, or government department hosting the market with aggregate a large cache of quality information (p.76).In the field of counter-terrorism having averaging consensus from a variety of sources is crucial to avoid engaging the wrong target. Such mistakes will incur costs much greater than monetary losses.

As groundbreaking and innovative as PAM was invariably the program garnered some criticism that eventually devolved into outright censure. Academics and bureaucrats “betting” on the aptitude of terrorist activities and political revolts transpiring may be unsettling from a prima facie standpoint. Particularly if taken at face value with no further analysis. Arguably the criticism of PAM intensified due to the IAO’s controversial director, John Poindexter. Poindexter rose to infamy from his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Regan administration. Even though all of the insiders of the project acknowledged that Poindexter had little involvement in PAM (P. 6, footnote 7), most of the backlash was directed at him. The fury of pundits, media outlets, and the general public caused Poindexter to resign in the summer of 2003. Leaving the PAM project permanently defunct.

The advocacy and opposition to the implementation of PAM as a means of aggregating intelligence on sensitive matters is no doubt a complex maze of ethical and pragmatic arguments. The use of prediction markets for gathering information for defense planning is just like another government policy, the impact is not neutral. Meaning that keeping or eliminating the program will create disparate consequences. Typically favoring one subset of economic agents over another. Individuals will bear the “expected costs (p.38) imposed by the impact of the policy. For example, a government program may create jobs for individuals that are politically connected. However, this is generally at the expense of the taxpayer. Vice versa, abolishing a program will eliminate jobs for the clerks and managers operating the department. The impact of policy always affects some individuals positively and others negatively. All political policies involve the transfer of benefits from one party to another.

Considering the non-neutral nature of policy, it would be justifiable to apply Bruce Yandle’s concept of Bootleggers and Baptists to the political pressure to abandon the PAM program. Yes, there were some ethical concerns regarding the prospect of having people “wager” on terrorist attacks. It would be naïve to believe that all the opprobrium was motivated by morality. Much how skilled consultants can profit from participating in a Prediction Market, many actors can also do so by dismantling such a program. Beneficiaries ranging from media outlets to opportunistic politicians. The political opportunism was multilayered including enemies of the Bush administration, the Republican Party, and even direct adversaries of John Poindexter. Proving an opportunity for democrats to temporarily shed their anti-patriotic veneer, to admonish these “conservatives” for making light of national security threats. Yet, the credulous public seldomly questions this moral browbeating. On the surface, these criticisms sound valid. Since when have politicians previously disinterested in national security matters are suddenly deeply invested in the integrity of defense intelligence? As Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince appearances are more important than actual principles in politics (p.42).

The Baptists

It is exceedingly difficult to designate one side of the coalition as a pure Baptist in the public outrage campaign surrounding PAM. The self-interest of the media, politicians, resident experts within the government is glaringly obvious. The potential for Dual-Role Actors (economic agents that benefit materially, but simultaneously sincerely believe the moral argument) in this coalition dynamic exists. However, is muddied by the perverse incentives to use strawman, ad hominem, and other logical fallacies to denigrate the program. The adversaries of PAM had a lot to gain through defaming the program. Not a whole lot of utility to extract from testing the validity of the results. Since the average constituent is not going to care too much about the granular details of the program. Rather be fixated on their visceral reaction to the ethical considerations of “betting” terrorist attacks.

Regardless, of whether moral advocacy is misguided or ill-informed, nevertheless, it is still a normative position. The average citizen happens to be the proverbial Baptist in this coalition dynamic. Any expression of disgust or moral indignation was sincere with little to no observable benefit from ending the program (dispersed costs, concentrated benefits). Even if the public’s concern was stoked by the slanted framing of the program, it still does not lessen make their concerns any less earnest. In the absence of further context, a group of contractors and academics participating in a gambling pool predicting terrorist attacks does sound grotesque. Since gambling is considered a form of entertainment appears to trivialize the severity of contentious situations that could result in the loss of lives. For the honest concern for these moral considerations, the average voter is our Baptist.

One great irony was that one of the academics deeply involved in the project narrowed down the reasonable ethical concerns in a peer-reviewed paper years after PAM had been dismantled. It was none other than prediction markets pioneer Robin Hanson. Hanson citing the following as prevalent concerns of the program:

  • “…The first concern expressed—that of replacing professionals with amateurs..” (p.82)
  • “…The second fear expressed was that bad guys would be willing to make losing

trades to mislead us..” (p.82).

  • “..The third main fear expressed was that bad guys might be rewarded for doing bad things..” (p.83). E.g.) Al-Qaeda’s meddling with airline stocks in the 9/11 attacks.

Hanson tactfully addresses all these concerns explaining how much of these concerns are the result of misconception. Like how the media coverage of the program generated several misconceptions regarding the function and purpose of PAM.

The Bootleggers

Several various individuals and groups stand to benefit from a sensationalized portrayal of the PAM program. One of the more salient examples would be the media. Media outlets are a business much like another, the incentive is to maximize profits. Logically this premise is cogent to anyone with even a small amount of exposure to economics. This controversy emerged in the primordial era of social media (Myspace being founded in 2003). The internet did exist but did not present any true competition to televised and print news media. For media outlets to have a story as jarring as the government funding a macabre gambling bracket trivializing serious events, instant goldmine. That is the type of story that sells publications. It has all the elements of a good conspiratorial techno-thriller. One only needs to consider the success of Tom Clancy to know how stories of geopolitical/government intrigue are lucrative. It could be argued that the media is merely the messenger, if they happen to profit from the event, it is a natural consequence of the event. How the information is presented and sways public opinion. If news reports are worded in a manner that is hostile towards the program, this will influence public opinion. Creating a feedback loop, inciting the ire of the Baptists while concurrently profiting. This would be an excellent example of the Bootleggers tacitly inciting the indignation of the Baptists.

Another subset of Bootleggers would be the politicians who spoke out against PAM. A book could be written about the political motives guiding the strategy condemnation of the program by various politicians. As previously mentioned, the layers of political opposition operate on a continuum of scale. Varying from individual grudges, contention between political factions, and even opposition to the sitting president at the time (George W. Bush). Despite the complexities of various political considerations, speaking out publicly about a controversial government program fosters a positive public image. Especially for politicians who were affiliated with the Democratic party. During the Bush administration, Democrats were perceived as being soft on terrorism. At a time where terrorism was a hot-button issue, speaking out against counter-terrorism measures was tantamount to political suicide. The whole PAM debacle presented an opportunity for a clean slate. An opportunity to capitalize on a misstep made by the Bush administration and to feed into the fears of the public. Paralleling the Bootlegger –Baptist feedback mechanism generated by the media. See below for a shining example of such sanctimonious posturing:

For instance,” Mr. Wyden said, ”you may think early on that Prime Minister X is going to be assassinated. So you buy the futures contracts for 5 cents each. As more people begin to think the person’s going to be assassinated, the cost of the contract could go up, to 50 cents.

‘The payoff, if he’s assassinated, is $1 per future. So if it comes to pass, and those who bought at 5 cents make 95 cents. Those who bought at 50 cents make 50 cents.’ (Senator Ron Wyden (D), NYT July 2003).