McCain Tech Policy — A First Reaction

When you show up as the butt of a joke on the Colbert Report, you should know you’re in trouble. And when, by merry coincidence, Stephen Colbert does a piece on your self-professed computer illiteracy the night before you release your long awaited technology policy, you are in real trouble. Especially after your campaign gets repeatedly nailed in debates in tech policy fora (such as my employer’s Innovation ’08) for not even having a tech policy, when Barak Obama had a fully developed tech policy and functioning advisory team way back in the beginning of the primary, and after former FCC Chairman and campaign surrogate Michael Powell goes into virtual seclusion for a month to develop your tech plan, you know it had better be Goddamn Frickin’ Awesome. Even if you have already signaled it is going to be an extension of the same “the market solves all our problems and even thinking about regulation angers the terrible market gods, scares away the happy competition fairies, and brings a plague of liberal command and control locust ‘oer the land” nonsense that marked Powell’s FCC tenure and has plunged our telecommunications sector — nay, our entire economy — into the crapper, it should at least be a well written and engaging song of praise to the gods of the market place.

No such luck. It reads like some crotchety technophobe knocked over the bumper sticker rack at an Ayn Rand Reading Revival and tried to rearrange them so it made a policy. Half of it isn’t even particularly tech specific. For example, I don’t find it a coincidence that the first six bullet points are just variations on McCain’s standard “I hate taxes” theme. They could have easily have applied to his agriculture policy, if you substituted “no new taxes on wireless services” for “no new taxes on sorghum.” Nor am I aware of a serious mass movement to tax wireless services (or sorghum).

As for the rest, well, see below. . . .

O.K., It’s not like it’s any surprise I’m not going to like McCain’s Tech Policy. Not only did I endorse Obama back on Super Tuesday, I have given money to the Obama campaign and, like twenty gazzillion other Democratic policy wonks, have signed up for Obama’s “tech advisory council” (official motto “if we get all of you together in one place you’ll spend all your time arguing with each other and leave Obama alone to get stuff done”). But as regular readers know, I like a challenge. The give and take, parry and thrust of debating vital policy issues with my “opposite numbers,” well aware that they bring an equal level of passion, idealism and intellectual rigor to the fray. After all, Michael Powell is a well educated intellectual guy, a true believer in the power of deregulation and not some paid industry hack. Nor do I deny that there is significant brain power and rational justification for the free market positions, although I think the empirical evidence demonstrates that the road to economic ruin runs past the Chicago School and hangs a hard right. Still, the positions are rational, the theories elegant, the dangers and counter examples of “agency capture” and other issues that arise through regulation are real and deserve serious response. Indeed, such argument is meat and drink to progressive policy wonks such as myself.

But the McCain Tech Policy statement is, and I cannot help but sound outrageously partisan here, a joke. I climb into the ring expecting to meet a Joe Frasier, and instead encounter Jerry Lewis. The statements that aren’t useless generalities (“America Must Educate Its Workforce For The Innovation Age”) are either contradictory or make no sense. For example, here is McCain on everybody’s favorite hot-button tech issue, “Network Neutrality:”

John McCain Will Preserve Consumer Freedoms. John McCain will focus on policies that leave consumers free to access the content they choose; free to use the applications and services they choose; free to attach devices they choose, if they do not harm the network; and free to chose among broadband service providers.

When Regulation Is Warranted, John McCain Acts.

Wow. That sounds real good. Maybe not all the way where I would want to be, for example he does not have Copps and Adelstein’s proposed fifth principle on non-discrimination. But he is definitely hovering around Kevin Martin territory, not out in Neo-Con La La land like McDowell, who apparently thinks telling Comcast to stop dicking around with p2p protocols and then lying to their customers about it is a prelude to forcing the Drudge Report to link to Daily Kos. Maybe McCain isn’t all that —

John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like “net-neutrality,” but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices.

[John Stewart voice]WHAT THE FLEETING EXPLETIVE DOES THAT EVEN MEAN!!!!?????[/John Stewart Voice] He quotes the FCC principles, he says he isn’t afraid to regulate when necessary, then he says he is against net neutrality? The rest of the paragraph goes on to talk about privacy. What happened, did the word processor accidentally delete a sentence somewhere? Or is it simply understood that we’re supposed to wish real hard and pray to the competition fairy — the strategy Powell pioneered when he reclassified cable as an information service back in 2002 and has worked so incredibly well for U.S. broadband ever since?

But what really astounds me is that this took how long to get produced? After two years of campaigning (16 months since formal announcement, but plenty of warm up before that), with less than 3 months until the general election, McCain suddenly realized that telecom and technology are multibillion dollar industries — infrastructure absolutely critical to our economic development, job creation, national security, education, healthcare, oh heck, just about every aspect of our life these days — and that wouldn’t it be nice to have a policy. This is ready from Day 1? While Barack Obama is reaching out to a new generation of voters through text messaging and social networking, was hailed by Techcrunch back in January as the candidate who “put more time and thought into his digital/technology policies than any other candidate,” McCain has only just figured out he needs an actual policy for this stuff?

I promise I will do a more detailed analysis soon. But for now, I close with this tale of warning from the Book of Kings I (12:1-16) (paraphrased, not literal translation). It seems rather apt for a candidate determined to turn a deaf ear to an electorate that has seen what total deregulation and “trusting the market” does, and would prefer an alternative thank you very much.

And when the King Solomon died, his son Rechavam became king after. And the people sent to Rechavam saying: “Your father made our burdens grievous, if you will but ease our burdens we will serve you.” Rechavam bade the people depart for three days, that he might consider how to answer them, and they departed. And Rechavam went first to the wise men, and they counseled him “if you will but pledge this day to serve the people, and you labor for them, and answer and speak them fairly, then the people will be loyal and make you their king.” But then Rechavam went to his accustomed companions, the ones whom he knew from his youth, and asked what they advised. They answered: “Tell this people that dares speak to you like this ‘My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s loins; where my father placed a yoke upon you, I shall place a greater yoke, where my father beat you with a whip, I shall use a cat-o-nine tails.’”

And when the people returned, the king answered them roughly, spurning the advice of the wise men and speaking after the advice of his companions. “All that my father did, I will do and moreso. Where my father placed you under the yoke, I shall make a greater yoke. Where my father beat you with whips, I shall beat you with a cat-o-nine-tails.” And when all Israel saw that the King did not listen to them, and regarded them not, they said to one another “what have we to do with this one? To your tents, oh Israel! See to thine own house Son of David.” And the people rose and returned to their tents.

Stay tuned . . . .

tags: McCain, Obama, Tech Policy, Network Neutrality

One Comment

  1. a major contradiction by Michael Powell is the assertion that broadband should not be viewed as a public utility like water or electricity

    yet like commodified units of water, internet service is also made up of essential elements of bandwidth and gegabytes for which branding via content integration can result in “bottled bandwidth” at ten and hundredfold prices not superior to its tap-source generic equivalent

    Powell advocates in effect that unregulated horizontal market power coupled with vertical integration of content (i.e. the competition fairy) will actually produce unbundled commodified units of water-like broadband service which need no regulation to attain this result … or, that this result is not important anyway because whatever resources the competition fairy drives to their highest valued use is the best outcome

    a commodified broadband market has emerged in the U.S. due to – not in spite of – regulation, under a privatized system despite extensive market failure which has suppressed penetration and speed and is now suppressing content itself …

    it has nevertheless become an essential platform for effective competition to enable growth and productivity on a magnitude of hundreds of billions of dollars in the form of millions of diversified, branded, uncommodified players on an open and level playing field …

    and that’s a problem for Powell’s constituency who refuse to recognize essential differences between factors like commodification versus branding between two fundamentally different and contrasting markets – content versus the stand-alone broadband platform over which content flows

    when real competition breaks out like it has in the content market, enabled by underlying utility-like services like commodified electricity and bandwidth not subject to effective competition, the free-market crowd goes apoplectic and attempts to reframe the result into an oxymoronic context of “we have to destroy the competition in order to save it” …

    ergo the barrage of every conceivable talking point BUT competition (i.e., security, copyright, etc) designed to undermine competition itself where it actually exists in the content market, heavily laced with mindless, overgeneralized public-private ideologies which never get to salient points of obvious market failure in the broadband market

    perhaps William Kennard, Powell’s political counterpart as a political technical adviser to Obama, could correct Powell’s mistaken analogy to public utilities – it’s the content market that’s different from public utilities – not the broadband market

Comments are closed