Here’s a presentation I’ve been using lately for various audiences about “Cronyism: History, Costs, Case Studies and Solutions.” In the talk, I offer a definition of cronyism, explain its origins, discuss how various academics have traditionally thought about it, outline a variety of case studies, and then propose a range of solutions. Readers of this blog might be interested because I briefly mention the rise of cronyism in the high-tech sector. Brent Skorup and I have a huge paper in the works on that topic, which should be out early next year.
Also, here’s a brief video of me discussing why corporate welfare doesn’t work, which was shot after I recently made this presentation at an event down in Florida. Continue reading →
Those of you who spend a lot of time thinking about public choice economics and the problem of cronyism more generally might appreciate this little blurb I found today about the Universal Service Fund (USF).
It goes without saying that America’s “universal service” (telephone subsidy) system is a cesspool of cronyism, favoring some companies over others and grotesquely distorting economic incentives in the process. And the costs just keep growing without any end in sight. Just go to any FCC meeting or congressional hearing about universal service policy and listen to all the companies insisting that they need the subsidy gravy trail to keep on rolling and you’ll understand why that is the case. But plenty of policymakers (especially rural lawmakers) love the system, too, since it allows them to dispense targeted favors.
Anyway, I was flipping through the latest copy of “The RCA Voice” which is the quarterly newsletter of what used to be called the Rural Cellular Association, but now just goes by RCA. RCA represents rural wireless carriers who, among other things, would like increased government subsidies for–you guessed it–rural wireless services. Their latest newsletter includes an interview with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) who was applauded by RCA for launching the Congressional Universal Service Fund Caucus, whose members basically want to steer even more money into the USF system (and their congressional districts). Here’s the relevant part of the Q&A with Rep. Young:
RCA VOICE: “How important is it for carriers serving rural areas to be engaged with their members of Congress on USF issues?”
REP. DON YOUNG (R-AK): “The more carriers engage with both their Representatives and Senators, the better. While the early bird may get the worm, the bird that doesn’t even try definitely won’t get any worms. The same applies to Congress.”
Well, you gotta admire chutzpah like that! It pretty much perfectly sums up why universal service has always been a textbook case study of public choice dynamics in action. Sadly, it also explains why there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that this racket will be cleaned up any time soon.
The FCC’s universal service tax is officially out of control. The agency announced yesterday that the “universal service contribution factor” for the 1st quarter of 2012 will go up to 17.9%. This “contribution factor” is a tax imposed on telecom companies that is adjusted on a quarterly basis to accommodate universal service programs. The FCC doesn’t like people calling it a tax, but that’s exactly what it is. And it just keeps growing and growing. In fact, as the chart below reveals, it has been exploding in recent years. It was in single digits just a few years ago but is now heading toward 20%. And not only is this tax growing more burdensome, but it is completely unsustainable. As the taxable base (traditional interstate telephony) is eroded by new means of communicating, the tax rate will have to grow exponentially or the base will have to be broadened to cover new technologies and services. We should have junked the current carrier-delivered universal service subsidy system years ago and gone with a straight-forward voucher system. A means-tested voucher could have targeted assistance to those who needed it without creating an inefficient, unsustainable hidden tax like we have now. For all the ugly details, I recommend reading all of Jerry Ellig’s research on the issue.
In my ongoing work on technopanics, I’ve frequently noted how special interests create phantom fears and use “threat inflation” in an attempt to win attention and public contracts. In my next book, I have an entire chapter devoted to explaining how “fear sells” and I note how often companies and organizations incite fear to advance their own ends. Cybersecurity and child safety debates are littered with examples.
In their recent paper, “Loving the Cyber Bomb? The Dangers of Threat Inflation in Cybersecurity Policy,” my Mercatus Center colleagues Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins argued that “a cyber-industrial complex is emerging, much like the military-industrial complex of the Cold War.” As Stefan Savage, a Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, told The Economist magazine, the cybersecurity industry sometimes plays “fast and loose” with the numbers because it has an interest in “telling people that the sky is falling.” In a similar vein, many child safety advocacy organizations use technopanics to pressure policymakers to fund initiatives they create. [Sometimes I can get a bit snarky about this.] Continue reading →
The New York Times reports that, “Facebook is hoping to do something better and faster than any other technology start-up-turned-Internet superpower. Befriend Washington. Facebook has layered its executive, legal, policy and communications ranks with high-powered politicos from both parties, beefing up its firepower for future battles in Washington and beyond.” The article goes on to cite a variety of recent hires by Facebook, its new DC office, and its increased political giving.
This isn’t at all surprising and, in one sense, it’s almost impossible to argue with the logic of Facebook deciding to beef up its lobbying presence inside the Beltway. In fact, later in the Times story we hear the same two traditional arguments trotted out for why Facebook must do so: (1) Because everyone’s doing it! and (2) You don’t want be Microsoft, do you? But I’m not so sure whether “normalizing relations” with Washington is such a good idea for Facebook or other major tech companies, and I’m certainly not persuaded by the logic of those two common refrains regarding why every tech company must rush to Washington.
Continue reading →
Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles is certainly no fan of free markets, but his contribution to today’s paper offers us this humorous take on the dangers of regulatory capture, a subject we’ve spent much time documenting here on the TLF.
When it comes to technology policy, I’m usually a fairly optimistic guy. But when it comes to technology politics, well, I have my grumpier moments. I had at particularly grumpy moment earlier this summer when I was sitting at a hearing listening to a bunch of high-tech companies bash each other’s brains in and basically calling for lawmakers to throw everyone else under the regulatory bus except for them. Instead of heeding Ben Franklin’s sound old advice that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” it’s increasingly clear that high-tech America seems determined to just try to hang each other. It’d be one thing if that heated competition was all taking place in the marketplace, but, increasingly, more and more of it is taking place inside the Beltway with regulation instead of innovation being the weapon of choice.
That episode made me think back to the outstanding 2000 manifesto penned by T. J. Rodgers, president and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, “Why Silicon Valley Should Not Normalize Relations with Washington, D.C.“ I went back and re-read it upon the 10th anniversary of its publication by the Cato Institute and, sadly, came to realize that just about everything Rodgers had feared and predicted had come true. Rodgers had attempted to preemptively discourage high-tech companies from an excessive “normalization” of relations with the parasitic culture that dominates Washington by reminding them what Washington giveth it can also taketh away. “The political scene in Washington is antithetical to the core values that drive our success in the international marketplace and risks converting entrepreneurs into statist businessmen,” he warned a decade ago. “The collectivist notion that drives policymaking in Washington is the irrevocable enemy of high-technology capitalism and the wealth creation process.” And he reminded his fellow capitalists “that free minds and free markets are the moral foundation that has made our success possible. We must never allow those freedoms to be diminished for any reason.”
Alas, as I point out in my new Cato Policy Report essay “The Sad State of Cyber-Politics,” no one listened to Rodgers. Indeed, Rodgers’s dystopian vision of a highly politicized digital future has taken just a decade to become reality. The high-tech policy scene within the Beltway has become a cesspool of backstabbing politics, hypocritical policy positions, shameful PR tactics, and bloated lobbying budgets. I go on in the article to itemize a litany of examples of how high-tech America appears determined to fall prey to what Milton Friedman once called “The Business Community’s Suicidal Impulse“: the persistent propensity to persecute one’s competitors using regulation or the threat thereof.
It’s a sad tale that doesn’t make for enjoyable reading, but I do try to end the essay on an upbeat (if somewhat naive) note. If you are interested, you can find the plain text version on the Cato website here and I’ve embedded the PDF of the publication down below in a Scribd Reader. Continue reading →