I Debate The Would-Be Vulcans

So Marvin and I had our debate with Ken Ferree and Lawrence Spiwak. On the whole, I thought we mixed it up pretty thoroughly and civilly — although you can all judge for yourselves by watching the archive here (free registration required).

The issues won’t surprise anyone, but I want to address one meta-issue on framing. Perhaps not surprisingly, the anti-NN folks repeatedly seek to claim the mantle of reason, relegating us pro-NN types with our emotional commitment to romantic ideas like democracy and free speech to the status of irrational and unreasonable fanatics.

Ah, de ja vu all over again. I can remember when I heard similar sentiments from Ken Ferree and his former boss Michael Powell during the fights over media ownership reform in 2002-04. Of course, these were the same “logical,” “rational,” purportedly proof driven folks who developed the “diversity index” which weighted the Dutches County Community Television station as having the same media power as the New York Times, and inspired the Third Circuit to observe that believing this “scientific” approach reflected reality “would require us to take leave of our senses.” But, undeterred by the fact that the Third Circuit considered his previous efforts at “scientific reality building” to be either a bad joke or an excellent parody, Ken is quite prepared to rely exclusively on the view from “Ferree Land” and denigrate the rest of as emotional hysterics who listen to voices from the past.

My beef with Lawrence Spiwak is rather different. Unlike Ferree, Spiwak is actually living in the real world. My complaint is not that he lives in fantasy land or ignores evidence. My complaint is that he wishes to define the terms of the debate in a rather narrow way — i.e., only economic analysis and only University of Chicago-type analysis at that. All else is mere “rhetoric” and “emotion,” and only a proper grounding in rational analysis (aka economic analysis by economists of the Chicago School) can properly frame things. (I should point out the Spiwak’s colleague from Phoenix Center, George Ford, took a similar line at the Federal Trade Commission broadband competition hearing last year, chastising Tim Wu and myself for meddling in economic matters in which we were not competent to express an opinion.)

As one might expect, I find the attempts of the would-be Vulcans to define the terms of the debate unpersuasive. To see me do unto them as Kirk did unto the M5, Landru, and the other would be uber-rational computers, see below . . .

As we all know, half the battle in policy land is framing. And there is a persistent belief — sadly born out from experience — that repeating something often enough prompts the busy policy makers with half an ear and the herd-beasts of the press to buy into it. After all, pigeonholing people and positions makes life so much easier for everyone than actually paying attention.

So while the Von debate went fine when we stuck to facts and substance, it got awfully tedious to hear Ken repeat time and again, rather like a mantra to protect him against arguments to which he had no answer, that our side had no substance. Any concerns we expressed were an unsupported “parade of horribles” while his own pronouncements on the state of affairs (“we have loads of competition in broadband! Never mind those silly FCC figures to the country.”) were incontrovertible facts. Incontrovertible, that is, because Ken simply repeated them with greater firmness and even more intolerance for contradiction when questioned. Lack of competition for broadband? Heck no! And never mind those pesky statistics because they either don’t matter or are flat out wrong. Competition in the 1990s because of FCC regulation? Ha, that wasn’t real competition, so it did us more harm than good. Regulation always imposes cost, and whether or not an ISP mucks with your traffic is exactly like whether you can find your favorite brand of canned green beans.

Debating with Ken on this stuff is eerily reminiscent to me of a period of time when I was in college when a young, earnest evangelical decided I was his pet project. He was genuinely stunned that I found his “incontrovertible proofs” rather controvertible. That Ken is equally sincere in his religious devotions to the Gods of the Market Place — and thus equally confident of the incontrovertible nature of his facts — is hardly news. But unless folks are willing to address facts when presented and actually deal with the merits of theories advanced, it becomes about as productive as the Monty Python Argument Clinic.

By contrast, Lawrence Spiwak did not lack for either substance or argument. I have issues and responses with a number of Phoenix Center studies, but these fall within the realm of where public policy debates should be. For example, the paper to which Spiwak referred on network congestion as a negative externality. It’s good as far as it goes, although for my money it makes too many simplifications and needs to be tested against empircal research. As Paul Klemperer warned, it is a mistake to be seduced by theory and theory must be constantly tested against the reality. In this paper, for example, I think the treatment of congestion is dramatically oversimplified. Experience tells us that people and applications have different tolerances for congestion, which network operators and regulators may evaluate differently. Nor does the paper examine the possible trade offs in different network congestion management strategies. Ultimately, all the paper really says is “network congestion is bad, allowing network operators to address network congestion is therefore welfare enhancing, and network operators are likely to be less aggressive about managing congestion (and therefore presumably block fewer applications) than socially conscious regulators.

Fair enough and a useful contribution, although I also think they overstate the value of the contribution a bit. Folks on the NN side (most of us anyway) will cheerfully agree that network congestion is a real problem and the network operators should have the ability to address network congestion. The question is whether the FCC (or Congress) should impose limits on the ability to engage in network management because certain network management strategies create too great a risk of monopoly rent seeking, anticompetitive activity, or other negative consequences.

No my problem is that Spiwak apparently believes this is the only rational framework for discussing the issues around network neutrality, and that only economists of the Chicago School can play. The rest of us are relegated to the arena of social (and thus unquantifiable) value arguments or as unfit to have our economic arguments addressed (or as George Ford said last year at the FTC hearing ”Why does Harold Feld have to try to make economic arguments? Why can’t he just stick to his argument about democracy?“)

I suppose what really sticks in my craw is this little exchange near the end (time stamp approx 1:29).

Feld: I object to the framing of this as emotion v. reason. We have economic research on our side as well.

Ferree: Name them.

Feld: Mark Cooper has written —

Ferree and Spiwak: [derisive snort] I mean a real economist.

Ammori: The Complaint was written with three law professors at Harvard , Yale and Standford . . .

Ferree and Spiwak: Still waiting to hear the name of an economist.

Ammori: Barbara Van Schewick

Feld: Nicholas Economides has recently published a paper on network neutrality and two-sided markets

Spiwak: I read that paper, it has flaws.

Feld: You asked for a name. I’m not happy with all the stuff that comes out of your shop either.

Cause here’s my problem. When folks accuse Phoenix Center, PFF, CATO and others of being ”sock puppets“ because they take industry money, the response is that you should address arguments on the merits rather than resort to ad hominem attacks. Fine. I’ll take that bet, because arguments do deserve to be addressed on the merits. If Comcast raises a good argument, I need to respond to it (not that I expect to persuade a company against its financial interest, but an argument should stand or fals on its merits). But the same rules need to apply all around. If I raise an economic argument, it deserves an answer on its merits rather than an appeal to authority. If Mark Cooper, who has written extensively on this and has been qualified as an expert witness on economic matters, raises an economic argument opponents should address the argument on its merits rather than scoff that his Ph.D is in sociology.

And when a real honest-to-God dyed-in-the-wool Ph.D certified economist like Nicholas Economides (or Free Press’ Derek Turner, or Wetmachine’s own Gregory Rose — both of whom have PhDs in economics thank you very much) are writing on the subject and proposing serious arguments in favor of network neutrality and identifying the potential harms of eliminating network neutrality, then it is time to stop asserting that only the opponents of regulation have research and reason and their side and that proponents of network neutrality are driven by emotion or unquantifiable ideals. (And I would suggest also looking at Economides’ earlier paper on network neutrality and consumer welfare.) What we have is a disagreement among experts, similar to the disagreement among engineering experts I touched on in my analysis of the engineering panel at the FCC’s Boston hearing. And we can have a healthy disagreement among experts. As an initial matter, the research in this area is relatively new, and there is a great deal yet to be done (especially in the realm of empirical research that would actually survey users). There will always be arguments in approach, in how much weight to assign particular benefits or potential costs, and a great deal of uncertainty in an evolving market.

But we can have a better debate, and therefore formulate better public policy, if folks will address arguments on the merits. I’ve spoken out before against dismissing arguments based on their source (although I can be quite snarky when I find the argument meritless). I should like to see a bit of the same respect on the other side. I think the next debate will be much improved with a bit less hand waving about credentials or efforts to claim the high-ground of reason against the emotionalism of fanatics. I will freely concede that a number of arguments I raise — such as my concerns about maintaining the internet as a medium ”as diverse as human thought” — involve value judgments other than economic efficiency. Some of them may even be non-quantifiable. But when I raise an economic argument — or cite to others who have — it deserves an answer on the merits whether I’m a Ph.D or a humble juris doctore.

Stay tuned . . . .

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One Comment

  1. bj says:

    Yeah, Lawrence pointing to the lagging of Network Buildout as an economic “Externality” when the telecoms received hundreds of billions of dollars for that buildout and chose to put that dough against their bottom line instead of actually laying the fiber (I, personally, call that theft) was one of the things that stuck in my craw, as my question about it pointed up.

    This whole lack of capacity thing has been artificially created by the network “owners” (geez, I paid for that!) and this Dudette is royally pissed about it. 😉

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