Democratic “Innovation Agenda” Smells Like Pork, Tastes Like Regulation

by on November 9, 2006

I’m getting a lot of calls from reporters this week asking about what the Democratic takeover means for technology policy issues and First Amendment matters. My answer on both counts: Not much.

On the free speech front, the results of this election will probably have very little effect. Democrats and Republicans are now birds of a feather on these matters. Democrats used to be considered the party of the First Amendment, but I have a hard time finding any defenders of the First Amendment left in that party. I spend as much time dealing with new speech regulations from Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman as I do any Republican in Congress. Thus, I suspect that, despite the shift in power, Congress will continue pushing for more media and Internet regulation just as they have been for the past 10 years. It’s a never-ending cycle and the only competition left between the two parties is the race to see who can regulate faster and more extensively than the other.

On the communications and broadband regulatory front the differences may be a bit more pronounced between the parties, but not too much so. To try to get a better feel for what Democratic rule might bring us I thought I’d take a look at a few items in the “Innovation Agenda” they produced before the election. (It can be found online here and here is the PDF).

From what I see it here, it sounds like the Democrats believe that spending a lot of taxpayer dollars on federal pork projects is the best way to improve America’s technological competitiveness.

For example, here’s what they have listed under the agenda item entitled “A Sustained Commitment to Research & Development”:

“Over the next five years, Democrats will double the federal commitment to research aimed at developing the next generation of sound scientific breakthroughs, and we will promote the public-private partnerships necessary to translate these new ideas into marketable technologies. To achieve this goal, Democrats will:

* Double overall funding for the National Science Foundation, basic research in the physical sciences across all agencies, and collaborative research partnerships; restore the basic, long-term research agenda at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to conduct long-range, high-risk, and high-reward research.

* Create regional Centers of Excellence for basic research that will attract the best minds and top researchers to develop far-reaching technological innovations and new industries, and modernize existing federal and academic research facilities.

* Modernize and permanently extend a globally competitive R&D tax credit to increase domestic investment, create more U.S. jobs, and allow companies to pursue long-term projects with the certainty that the credit will not expire.

Sounds like a lot of pork to me. But wait, there’s more. Under the heading of “Affordable Broadband Access for Every American Within Five Years” we learn more about the Dems’ “chicken-in-every-pot” plan:

“Democrats will ensure that the United States has the world’s most advanced telecommunications infrastructure to bridge the digital divide so that every American has access to affordable broadband Internet service and communications technology. To achieve this goal, Democrats will:

* Implement a national broadband policy that doubles federal funding to promote broadband for all Americans, especially in rural and underserved communities; create new avenues of Internet access including wireless broadband technologies, broadband over power lines, and affordable community-based options.

* Ensure the continued growth of Internet-based services and provide a stable regulatory framework to attract investment by existing providers and new entrants.

* Enact a broadband tax credit for telecommunications companies that deploy broadband in rural and underserved parts of America to ensure that every region of the country benefits from our innovation investments.

It’s bad enough that they’ll be wasting taxpayer dollars on programs and subsidies like these. But the real danger here is obvious and goes back to one of the universal truths of economics: Everything that gets subsidized eventually gets regulated too. The more money $$$ that Congress critters spend on communications, Internet and digital media services and technologies, the more likely it is they’ll seek use that spending as leverage to regulate those services and technologies in the long run.

Of course, none of this is really all that new or even unique to Democrats. Back in 2002, Wayne Crews, Thomas Pearson and I wrote about how both parties play this game in a Cato Institute paper called, “Birth of the Digital New Deal: An Inventory of High-Tech Pork Barrel Spending.” It was bad enough then, but it’s obviously about to get a whole lot worse.

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