Tales of the Sausage Factory

It's time for the NOFA Awards!

No, not the actual giving out of money, silly. My snarky commentary on yesterday’s unveiling of Broadband.gov.

I’ll preface by saying I absolutely still love and respect the folks I know on the inside who struggled with this stuff for months. I know how hard it is to actually implement this stuff, especially with this kind of ridiculous schedule and no one appreciating what it takes to coordinate among this many agencies and how utterly devestated the federal workforce was following 8 years of the Bushies refusing to invest in information technology, outsourcing everything to contractor cronies, and elevating political loyalty over actual talent.

Nor do I have much patience with those who are all “they sold us out blah blah blah . . .” Engineers don’t whine about how unfair it is that trees bloom in the spring and screw up line of sight with their leaves. You deal with it. Same in politics. You want good policy? Then you roll up your sleeves and get ready to fight for it rather than whining like little babies about how Obama the Deliverer failed to smite our enemies for us or persuade incumbents to put the public interest over their corporate interests and magically made all the problems of getting human beings to cooperate with each other go away. Because unless you’re willing to make some actual phone calls to members of Congress like Dittoheads do when Rush gives them the word, then I don’t want to hear it.

And the fact that there are some real issues does not negate all the good this NOFA will do. Anyone who claims that getting a less than perfect result means we pissed this away and it’s just as bad as Bush and blah blah does not know what they are talking about. I’d rather have this than more hymn singing from the worshipers of the gods of the marketplace. The fact that this turns out to be incremental rather transformative, a stepping stone rather than the whole edifice, doesn’t make it crap.

And finally, I promise to do real deep policy analysis soon.

But my selfish indulgence in unfair snarkiness below . . . .

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Posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory, The Stimulus Package (ARRA) | Also tagged , , | 4 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Deja Vu All Over Again in Pennsylvania.

Some of you may remember Pennsylvania as the state where the battle to save muni broadband began when, around Thanksgiving 2004, the PA Legislature passed a law preventing local government from“competing with the private sector” by prohibiting state or local government from offering broadband services unless the local government solicited service from the private sector and got turned down. While that sucked from the perspective of the citizens of PA, it did help kick off the massive fight that blocked anti-muni broadband legislation in other states, such as Indiana and Texas.

Now, those whacky worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace in the PA Legislature are at it again! As reported by Craig Settles, the Hon. Patrick Browne (R-Senate District 16), Chairman of the PA Senate Finance Committee, and several lesser acolytes of the Absolutist Free Market Faith have introduced SB 530. This bill would prevent the State of PA or any local government therein from taking any stimulus money for purposes that would “compete with the private sector.” Indeed, if I read it correctly, it would prevent PA or local government from ever engaging in any activity that “competes with the private sector” unless it was (a) related to higher education, (b) maintaining public parks, (c) “necessary services” defined as “those services that are critical for human safety and health, including fire departments, emergency services and medical services;” and (d) any current activity, but that activity may not be expanded.

More below . . . .

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Posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Do Competitive Markets Keep Misbehaving? The Curious Case Of Cellular Txt Msging.

Been meaning to get to this for awhile now, which is why the links are so old.

It has long been an article of faith among the worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace that once you achieve “competition” (generally described as at least one more possible new entrant, but certainly where multiple providers exist) you eliminate regulation, because a competitive marketplace gives consumers what they want — like high fuel efficiency standards and a secure financial system. Thus, for the 30 or so years, we have more and more framed the debate in telecom and media policy around whether or not we have “enough” competition rather than about the benefits or drawbacks of any actual policy. Unsurprisingly, you can always argue that we have “enough” competition (or that competition is about to emerge) and thus side step the whole question of the actual state of reality and what reality we might prefer.

Enter the curious case of cellular telephony. I’ll take the case of text messaging, although the same argument applies in varying degrees to other aspects of the wireless market like network attachments and ring tones. As Randall Stross wrote in the NY Times at the end of December, the cost charged to consumers for txt messaging has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the actual cost of the service. Yet — as we are constantly reminded — the cell phone market has four national players and numerous regional players. This makes it squindoodles more competitive than, say, the broadband market in most places in the country where you can generally get two somewhat comparable services (cable and DSL) and a whole bunch of also rans that folks like to claim are competition.

Text messaging is so overpriced compared to cost that last year Senator Herb Kohl, Chair of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, has sent a letter to AT&T, VZ, T-Mobile, and Sprint (more details here)asking ‘Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello and what’s all this ‘ere, then? — you’re nicked!’ (no, I have no idea why Kohl sounds like a British Bobby from 50 years ago — ask him). As Kohl noted in his letter, the consistent ridiculously high prices for SMS txt messaging “is hardly consistent with the vigorous price competition we hope to see in a competitive marketplace.”

Short answer: it is utterly consistent with the nature of the wireless market. But — and here’s the shocker — real world markets are often much, much more complicated than the followers of the Gods of the Marketplace like to believe. Cell phone companies charge outrageous prices for text messaging (and other services like ring tones) not because they conspire with one another, or even because they engage in conscious parallelism. Nor do they do so because they must as a result of actual costs. They do so because — to use that classic phrase — it is what the market will bear, and the structure of the market ensures there is no benefit to any cellular carrier to offer text msging plans at anything approaching cost plus reasonable profit.

In economic terms, this is an oligopoly. Washington regulators treat oligopolies as if they were the same as competitive markets, unless one can show evidence of actual collusion — in which case it becomes a question of price fixing. But in reality, it doesn’t always work out that way. Even absent collusion, the ability of players to engage in strategic planing can negate the anticipated benefits of competition. Applying this framework to the CMRS market, and the question of the price of text messaging goes from suspicious riddle to entirely predictable. Whether you regard this as a reasonable outcome or not has nothing to do with “competition” or “market failure” and everything to do with whether we make a policy choice to care about it or not.

(Much) longer answer below . . . .

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Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

It's Almost Like Colbert Reads This Blog . . . .

I know he doesn’t, but oh….wouldn’t it be cool if he did.

Here is his Most Awesome Thruthiness riffing on my favorite subject, the worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace.

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in General, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged | Comments closed

Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Difference Between Free Market Conservatives and Worshippers of the Gods of the Marketplace.

As regular readers know, I frequently deride those who continue to put their faith in a creed of deregulation despite empirical evidence that this is not suitable to all occasions as worshipers of of the “gods of the marketplace,” after the Rudyard Kipling Poem The Gods of the Copybook Heading (with a fine sense of irony that Kipling would be closer ideologically to the folks I criticize). This leads some to imagine that I am “anti-market” or “pro-regulation” or some other ideology that places process over outcome, rather than a pragmatic sort who believes that the job of public policy is to use all available tools to achieve the goals of prmoting the general welfare, securing domestic tranquility, etc., etc.

I recently came across an illustration of the difference in, of all cases, a collection of Darwin Award Winners (Darwin Awards Iv: Intelligent Design for anyone that cares). The book contains the tale of a “winner” who was a passionate anti-government type who refused to wear a seat belt in protest against mandatory seat belt laws. A car he was in in skidded and flipped over. The the driver and one passenger who were wearing seat belts survived. Our protesting friend was thrown from the car and died.

It occurred to me that this story nicely illustrates the difference between those who favor a free market approach and worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace. A smart Libertarian may believe that the government has no right to order people to wear seat belts. But, evaluating all the evidence of how seat belts save lives, will voluntarily wear a seat belt even if not required. After all, it would be foolish to put one’s life at risk simply because the government wrongly orders people to do what you think makes good sense.

But an ideological driven soul, indifferent to empirical evidence and elevating process over substance, refuses to wear a seat belt because the government says you should, and therefore wearing a seat belt must be the wrong or inefficient result and believes it the positive duty of all anti-government believers to refuse to wear seat belts.

Now go read the dissenting statements of McDowell and Tate in the Comcast decision, the McCain Tech Policy, or any of a dozen or so speeches by elected representatives or pundits who get their economic education from reciting bumper stickers about free market economics they don’t understand. Then ask yourself, are these guys actually evaluating the evidence and accepting the result? Or are they driving with their seat belts off?

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", General, How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)
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