Thursday, August 14, 2008

John McCain, technology and competition

Salon has an excellent piece on John McCain and his rather awkward approach to high tech stuff. Kind of funny to think of a fighter pilot unfamiliar with something as simple as email. I thot fighter pilots were supremely macho guys who were in command of some of the most sophisticated and powerful technology of the day. Maybe email is too down to earth.

This is not just a style issue. McCain has been in an important place to oversee the growth of the Internet: he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. His record there is not good.

During McCain's tenure, the committee oversaw the implementation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first major overhaul of U.S. telecom law in nearly 62 years. McCain had to choose whether to be pro-competition or pro-big business. In most instances, he chose the latter route, by opposing increased Internet access for schools and libraries, backing large mergers to benefit the telecom industry and supporting a virtual system of haves and have-nots.
McCain, of course, does not see things this way. He's in favor of letting the free market work, and thinks the government should just stay out of the way.

McCain's long history in the Senate has one main theme: Government can do no good in telecom policy. "McCain is a pure free-market ideologue," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. "Their [Bush and McCain] belief is that government should just get out of the way and let the private sector do it. Clearly, in the financial markets, the private sector has done a horrible job."
But there is no such thing as a pure free market in an area of the economy like telecommunications. Government regulation will determine the structure of that market. The difference of opinion is simply what the structure of the market will be, not whether or the market will be free. The issue here is not whether the telecom industry will be owned by the state or private industry. That debate, at least in this country, is over. And for telecom, it was never really an issue - the state has never, as far as I know, owned telecom companies in this country.

The debate over state vs. private control of the economy is an old one, but conservatives are still fighting that fight, because they are still enjoying the fact that they won that ideological battle. John McCain is still fighting it.

a common theme of McCain's views on tech policy is the belief that law can rarely be used to benefit telecommunications. Government intervention, for the most part, is bad. "Unless there is a clear-cut, unequivocal restraint of competition, the government should stay out of it," McCain said in 2007. "These things will sort themselves out."
That's like saying that we should have a minimum of rules in a game like football, and just let the teams play, and let them "sort things out" on the field. We don't do that because we understand that competition has to have rules to be fair.

McCain seems oblivious to the fact that these things get "sorted out" in the halls of Congress, and that he is a key part of that process.
McCain has boasted that he has "never done any favors for anybody -- lobbyist or special interest group -- that's a clear, 24-year record."

But the record isn't so clear. McCain's chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee has been good for large corporations, and they have rewarded him handsomely. In 2000, Washington Internet Daily, a trade site, reported that McCain was the "[c]lear leader in fund-raising from high-tech companies." Over those past two years, McCain collected $1.2 million from communications and electronics companies, including nearly $700,000 from phone companies and telecom infrastructure firms.
I am actually not as suspicious of this kind of politician-money connection as most people. I don't think the companies are buying McCain's loyalty. I think he was already in their camp, and they are simply supporting someone who agrees with them.

The problem is that he sees large corporations as doing no wrong. He sees them as acting in their best interests, and therefore in their customers' best interest. And since their customers are the public, what is in their customers' best interest is in the public's best interest.

What McCain, and many conservatives, seem to miss is that what is in a corporation's best interest is NOT necessarily in their customers' best interest, and certainly not necessarily in the public's best interest. It goes back to the old state-vs.-private ownership issue. McCain trusts large corporations because he thinks the alternative is state control. But that is no longer the debate. The debate now is between different KINDS of competition. The issue is no longer whether or not we should allow competition or impose regulations. The issue now is how to use regulations to MANAGE competition. In this respect, Democrats may actually be better capitalists than Republicans, because they understand the need to be skeptical of large corporations' claims to be in favor of the "free market," when in fact they are in favor of skewing the rules to be in favor of them.

We do not the most successful teams set the rules for baseball, basketball, football, etc. We should have the same standards for the market.

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