Maybe the most obscene trend of our lifetime is this mania about free markets. It’s part of the racist Tea Party dogma. It’s central to neocon dogma. It’s why we have a sequestration happening in Washington. It’s why the wealth inequality in this country is at an all-time high. It’s why both Wall Street and homeless shelters set records this week. It’s why your net worth dropped at least 30 percent in the last five years. And it’s been orchestrated by cretins like the Koch Brothers and rammed down our throats.
And it’s utter bullshit. Yes, the law of supply and demand is nice and symmetrical and it makes sense but, as any college freshman econ student will explain, it only really works when there are many undifferentiated sellers. When there’s not—and there almost never is—there’s an unbalanced market, and who gets screwed? You, the buyers.
I got into a nice scrape last week on Facebook with one of these free-market tards (or freetards), when I posted a news item that some Republican running for governor somewhere had on his platform that the Internet should be treated like a public utility. I thought, first, damn, this guy gets it, and, second, what a refreshing thing for a Republican to be running on, what with the usual crap the party spews about guns and vaginas and stuff.
And a message pops up: “So, you’re for SOPA and PIPA, then?” The inference being that if the big bad government is involved with the Internet, it will somehow wreck it. The market will handle it . . . wrong.
It’s like this: Public utilities, like the phone and power companies, are public utilities because they provide things considered essential, because they use public property (like streets) and because they tend to be natural monopolies. To the extent they’re not natural monopolies, they need supervision, so they operate in the public interest, which they would not do otherwise.
For example, in 1934 Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to oversee the telephone companies and declared that every citizen should be hooked up to the phone system and charged reasonable rates. Very quickly, telephone lines went up across America in places they hadn’t been before, particularly in remote areas and small towns where providing cheap phone service was simply not profitable. Everybody paid the same rate for service, with folks in densely populated areas generally subsidizing the service of folks out in the boonies. And phone companies were required to offer super-cheap “life-line” rates, which again are subsidized by everybody else. In 1936, Congress did the same thing for electric service with the Rural Electrification Act.
Soon, virtually everyone in the country had at least the opportunity to have reasonably priced phone service and electricity, even those for whom providing this stuff was really expensive. Power and phone companies have their operations and rates reviewed by regulators. Where technology allows something resembling competition to take place, quasi-governmental institutions (like NYISO, which runs the New York state power grid) have sprung up to mimic a marketplace while maintaining enough control to protect the public. If all this were just left to the market, lots of folks would still be talking to themselves in the dark. Or dead. And no one can seriously argue that these initiatives, which have almost nothing to do with the free market and everything to do with socialism, aren’t good things. Fantastic things.
It’s way past time for the same considerations to be applied to the Internet. The market is not providing. Broadband Internet is an essential of modern life, of public safety, and economic growth. And we’re getting reamed. The United States is 29th in the world both in terms of Internet speed and price. Freakin’ Bulgaria has better and cheaper Internet than we do. We are 19th in the world in terms of broadband connectivity. And we invented the damn thing!
Why do we suck so bad? Two words: market failure. There is no real competition and our government is controlled by the very corporations who are boning us with high prices and crap service. I’m in Western Massachusetts, suffering with slow and unreliable satellite Internet that costs me $150 a month. I have to be careful of what I download and upload because my service is metered. It blows. The state has some “public/private” thing going on that is supposedly running broadband-ready fiber-optic cable along some of the main roads out here, with the stated goal of bringing everyone wicked-fast Internet. They’re saying the “last mile” part of this, for those of use who don’t live on one of these main roads (which is most of us), will be a big no problemo, but there’s absolutely no specifics on, for instance, who is going to run the cable two and a half miles up to my house and how it’s gonna get paid for.
I’m not optimistic. But I’m praying to be proven wrong. But even if this sketchy little initiative comes through, what about the rest of the country? Remember, this is Massachusetts over here. We’re different. We went for George McGovern, for crying out loud.
Paul Rapp is an intellectual property attorney who maintains a hermit-like existence in the mountainous wilds of Western Massachusetts. He often goes days without meaningful human contact save that with his so-called “friends” on various social media sites.