Friday, December 17, 2004

Pining For Republicans

Don't think me crazy when I say I long for a Republican in the White House. That's what four years of Bush/Cheney can do to anyone located even slightly to the left of center. Perhaps it is euphoric recall, or a maudlin sense of nostalgia, but I seem to remember Republicans pushing for fiscal discipline, measured foreign policy, the responsibility of the individual, accountability for actions, and wasn't it Nixon who started the EPA after all?

The current administration seems determined to undermine, in a systematic fashion, all of those goals, philosophies, and programs - as if they were anachronistic to the Republican Party itself. But it gets worse. Despite the shameless evocation of Republican forefathers like Theodore Roosevelt, the Bush administration is committed to dismantling his greatest contribution to capitalism and America's health, wealth, and power.
Steve Clemons laments (via Praktike):

True to President Bush's odd celebration of people and policies seemingly at odds with his own administration, Bush has often celebrated Teddy Roosevelt, who broke up America's big trusts and monopolies -- while Bush and his team build them up.
Clemons is referring to two separate decisions by Michael Powell's FCC that each pave the way for the growth of anti-capitalist monopolies and competition stifling cartels. The first is the FCC's ruling to allow phone companies to charge potential competitors prohibitively expensive fees to use their infrastructure.

By way of background, after AT&T was broken up, Congress wanted to create an environment that was conducive for the healthy exercise of capitalism. Because it is economically infeasible for aspiring telecom companies to create an entire infrastructure anew (phone lines, cables, central hubs, etc), which gives an insurmountable advantage to companies that own already existing networks, Congress enacted the 1996 Telecommunications Act which required the newly formed Baby Bells to allow new comers access to their facilities in exchange for a fee for use.

Since competition is the main catalyst for the beneficial outcomes generated by unbridled capitalism, in the form of lower prices and innovations, the results of the 1996 Telecommunications Act were predictably a boon for society. Increased competition led to investment in new and more efficient technologies, and improved services and lower prices were passed on to consumers.

Teddy Roosevelt realized the importance of competition when he broke up the trusts and monopolies that were thwarting innovation and manipulating the market to keep prices inflated around the turn of the Century. Roosevelt's reforms paved the way for America's unprecedented success in technology and innovation, and Republicans who ascribe to his dedication to capitalism follow the trail he blazed - as do many Democrats who espouse Capitalist Populism. Somewhere, Teddy Roosevelt was smiling at his prescience when the telecom industry was opened up for business.

Unfortunately, Roosevelt is nothing but a convenient icon used for political cover for pseudo-Republicans like Bush and Cheney. Bush's FCC just reversed the impressive gains reaped from the 1996 Telecommunications Act in one fell swoop by ruling that the Baby Bells could significantly increase the rates they charge to their competitors - which effectively prices almost all competition out of the market. The dearth of competition will mean innovation will stagnate, services will deteriorate, and prices will increase as the few in possession of the existing networks will be free from competition. The productive mechanism of capitalism has been eradicated from this sector by the self-described champions of "free markets." As is becoming an all too unfortunate pattern, the interests of big business are being served, and the brunt of the impact is being borne by everyday Americans. Such regressive measures are anathema to Capitalist Populism.

The second pro-monopoly policy pursued by Bush's FCC involves media ownership rules. Ironically, the same act that attempted to break up monopolies in the telecom industry, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, also eased restrictions on media ownership rules, which allow media companies to own larger stakes of television, radio and print venues in given regions - media monopolies. But those changes, while detrimental to capitalistic principles, weren't enough for the Bush administration. In June 2003, Bush's FCC enacted controversial new rules, currently held up in court battles, that would have lifted a restriction on a company's owning both a newspaper and television or radio station in the same market. In the largest cities, the rules would have allowed companies to own as many as three television stations, eight radio stations and a cable operator, as well as a newspaper - and they allowed the largest television networks to buy more affiliated stations.

Although the judicial entanglement provides only a temporary respite, the possibility that resistance to these changes will grow to lethal proportions gives a glimmer of hope for the forces seeking to preserve a fair, vigorous, and ethically responsible press in this country. I cannot overstate the importance of this issue in relation to the healthy functioning of democracy, because in many ways it goes beyond a pure economic monopoly model. As I argued
at length here, the problem with media convergence, or consolidation, is that it limits the outlets for opinion, criticism and the dissemination of facts and ideas. A democracy, like an economy, is better served by a robust, competitive, and free marketplace of ideas, where no one faction can influence the availability of knowledge. The potential for abuse is too high if we limit the major media outlets to a small handful of inter-related companies, and such abuse puts the very foundations of our republic in jeopardy. (See also: Bill Moyers' speech on the matter here).

These rule changes have faced opposition from both the right and the left - as should be expected from Teddy Roosevelt Republicans. Unfortunately, the Bush administration appears intent on rewarding the CEOs of the major media companies who all supported, and donated, to the campaign of Bush/Cheney in 2004.

In a related matter,
Clemons is pursuing some potential conflicts of interest at the FCC that might be contributing to these monopolistic leanings. A Washington Note reader points out:

News Corp [Rupert Murdoch's company] hired two Powell aides -- Susan Eid and Paul Jackson -- as lobbyists not long after Powell released a set of media ownership rules that would have benefited Fox and other big station groups. (Check out Broadcasting & Cable, "Capital Watch," 3/1/2004 -- it's in Lexis/Nexis.)

It's particularly curious that News Corp would have hired Jackson, formerly the FCC's congressional lobbyist, considering the FCC had horribly bungled its relationship with Congress and received one of its strongest rebukes ever in the form of various votes against Powell's ownership rules. Only the administration stepping in at the last minute allowed the ownership cap to be lifted as a matter of law.
This increasingly cozy relationship between corporate America, lobbyists, and the Bush administration just got a little cozier according to a Washington Post article cited by Clemons:

The timing was perfect: On Nov. 23 -- exactly three weeks after the election and as a flurry of top Bush administration officials announced their departures -- the Office of Government Ethics declared that it was relaxing prohibitions on lobbying by former Cabinet secretaries and other top officials.

Until now, senior officials at Cabinet departments and agencies had not been allowed to lobby former colleagues for a full year after leaving office -- a rule designed to prevent an obvious conflict of interest. But, in a notice in the Federal Register, the ethics office issued a new rule invoking its power to declare that "a former senior employee who served in a 'parent' department or agency is not barred . . . from making communications to or appearances before any employee of any designated component of that parent."
So while FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his aides are unleashed from all restrictions on pursuing lucrative lobbying positions in the industry that they now are twisting anti-trust rules to benefit, and they are doing just that, everyday Americans are left in the lurch, and capitalism suffers. I ask again, where have all the Republicans gone?

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