Tim Wu on Obama, McCain, and “a Chicken in Every Pot”

by on September 10, 2008 · 10 comments

Writing at Slate, Tim Wu tries to make Obama out to be the real Big Government candidate on media policy, who will deliver “if not a chicken in every pot, a fiber-optic cable in every home.” By contrast, Wu implies that McCain is just another pro-big business lackey who doesn’t understand “that the media and information industries are special—that like the transportation, energy, or financial industries, they are deeply entwined with the public interest.” Wu goes on to say:

Ultimately, most of the difference in Obama’s and McCain’s media policies boils down to questions about whether the media is special and a dispute over how much to trust the private sector. Camp McCain would tend to leave the private sector alone, with faith that it will deliver to most Americans what they want and deserve. The Obama camp would probably administer a more frequent kick in the pants, in the belief that good behavior just isn’t always natural.

First, as a factual matter, Wu is just wrong about McCain being some sort of a radical hands-off, pro-market liberalizer on media policy issues. Oh, if only that were true! But for those of us who have been in DC covering telecom and media policy for many years, it is widely understood there is no nailing down John McCain on any tech, telecom or media policy issue. He’s been all over the board. While he has sponsored or supported some deregulatory initiatives on the telecom front in the past, he’s also been a supporter of other regulatory causes. His battles with broadcasters and cable, for example, are well-known. Most recently, McCain has been leading the effort to impose a la carte mandates on cable and satellite operators.

And if you’re all about Big Government credentials, then don’t forget McCain-Feingold, a law that made it a felony for corporations, nonprofit advocacy groups, and labor unions to run ads that criticize–or even name or show–members of Congress within 60 days of a federal election. And then there was the far more troubling McCain-Feingold II. Although it did not pass, McCain’s measure would have required broadcasters to run 12 hours of “candidate-centered and issue-centered programming” in the six weeks prior to primary and general elections—without giving broadcasters any control over those 12 hours (half of which would have had to run during prime time). The bill would have created a voucher system for the purchase of airtime for political advertisements, financed by an annual spectrum-use fee on all broadcast license holders. In sum, the legislation would have forced broadcast stations to pay a tax to the federal government that would in turn finance a pool of funds that politicians could turn around and spend to run ads on those very stations!

This sounds like the sort of Big Government Media Agenda that should make Tim Wu happy, but he doesn’t mention any of it in his essay.

But let me address the more fundamental, and quite mistaken, premise that underlies Wu’s essay — namely, that increased government activism in the media and broadband marketplace will somehow lead us to techno-nirvana. When Wu states that “the difference in Obama’s and McCain’s media policies boils down to questions about whether the media is special and a dispute over how much to trust the private sector,” he conveniently ignores the flip-side of that statement. That is, shouldn’t the real question here be: “How much do we trust the public sector”? Wu apparently assumes that “public interest” regulation will be all wine and roses. Enlightened, benevolent lawmakers and regulators who understand that media is “special” will concoct just the right mix of regulatory policies that will be pro-consumer, pro-democracy, and pro-free speech.

Sorry, but I’m not buying it. One would need to ignore 100 years worth of experience to believe such fanciful notions, and Wu seemingly does. Somehow, all will be different now. Regulators won’t be captured by special interests. Command-and-control regulation will suddenly become far more efficient and not deter innovation. And policymakers will resist the urge to censor speech.

Do you believe that story? If you’ve read your economic history, you’re probably just as skeptical as I am. It is revisionist history to say that the era of regulated monopoly and “public interest” media regulation was some sort of pro-consumer, pro-innovation, pro-free speech paradise. In reality, a “chicken in every pot” means a regulator on every cyber-corner. And I just don’t understand how someone as smart as Tim Wu thinks the entire process won’t once again come to be captured by the very interests he hopes to “kick in the pants.” They will be wearing the pants before it is over!

I invite Tim Wu and all his activist-minded friends on the Left to take another look at the definitive 2-volume Economics of Regulation by a more enlightened and experienced Democrat, Professor Alfred E. Kahn. In that masterwork, they will find the following words of wisdom (and caution):

When a commission is responsible for the performance of an industry, it is under never completely escapable pressure to protect the health of the companies it regulates, to assure a desirable performance by relying on those monopolistic chosen instruments and its own controls rather than on the unplanned and unplannable forces of competition.
Responsible for the continued provision and improvement of service, [the regulatory commission] comes increasingly and understandably to identify the interest of the public with that of the existing companies on whom it must rely to deliver goods.

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