Why Australia Is Building A National Broadband Network And the U.S. Can’t Fund BTOP Oversight

So the Aussie’s are spending $35billion (US) to build a national broadband network (creatively named the NBN). Meanwhile, in the United States, not only did we cut $300 million from BTOP’s grant program, but it is unclear that Congress will even fund the necessary oversight of the program to ensure that stuff funded gets built. As for future funding for actual grants — ha!

There is a reason such projects now happen in other countries, where once they happened here in the U.S.

It should be noted that this was a big campaign issue, and that the Labour Party maintained its ability to govern, despite being unpopular for a variety of reasons, because of popular support for the NBN, which the opposition threatened to cancel.

It should also be noted that a preliminary move to building the NBN was to require the incumbent, Telestra, to divest its content interests and submit to various divestitures and other forms of common carriage regulation on its broadband side that make even my most radical proposals look like a Bell-head manifesto (albeit softened by the payment of a $10 billion bribe and nationalization of the least profitable rural lines)

Not only could we not do something like this in the U.S., it caused a minor political firestorm when then-Obama Administration adviser on broadband issues Susan Crawford commented in 2009 that Australia’s NBN plans were “interesting.”

Two apparently unrelated items from NPR yesterday that thematically relate. The first was about the National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, pulling a piece from an exhibition called Hide/Seek on gay artists. In a 4 minute video shot in 1987 by David Wojnarowicz about the death of his partner from AIDS. It is a rapidly shifting montage of clips, most of them containing disturbing imagery (it is, after all, an expression of violent grief), and including a shot of a Crucifix crawling with ants while a voice cries out “unclean, unclean.” Unsurprisingly, Catholic League President Bill Donahue demanded its removal. Also unsurprisingly, a number of prominent Republicans likewise demanded removal and threatened to cut off the Smithsonian’s funding. Again unsurprisingly, the Smithsonian complied.

But what was surprising was Donahue’s insistence afterward that, despite getting what he wanted, Smithsonian should be defunded anyway. Even more surprising, Donahue did not argue he wanted Smithsonian defunded because they were anti-Catholic. Instead, he wanted Smithsonian and all public museums defunded because they are of no value to “the working man.”

But the removal of the art may not have ended the debate. Donohue said he wants Congress to eliminate all federal funding for the Smithsonian.

“Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is to go to professional wrestling? And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I’m insane. I don’t go to museums any more than any Americans do,” Donohue said.

The Smithsonian says about 30 million Americans each year visit its museums, which have exhibits ranging from obscure paintings to space capsules to the original star-spangled banner.

This quote is particularly ironic in light of the history of the Smithsonian and the purpose of public funding for museums and other “elite” educational institutions such as museums, the National Endowment for the Arts, and public broadcasting. They were all about taking art and science and culture and moving them out from the province of the elite and making them accessible to “the working class.” The Smithsonian in particular was founded in response to a bequest to Congress from an British Scientist James Smithson to create an establishment “for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men” (Smithson was fascinated with the “American Experiment” in creating a Republic and a theory of sovereignty derived from the people).

It is true we have always had a strong anti-intellectual movement, frequently deriving from politics and paralleling certain forms (but not all forms) of populism. Andrew Jackson, for example, the first populist who pioneered the strategy of running as a “man of the people” against East Coast elites, made no secret of his scorn for public spending on science and education. But the anti-intellectual tide is strong today, the more so since the key institutions of this country for popularizing education and culture were created as part of the New Deal and the Great Society.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated story on the politics of the Deficit Reduction Commission, the CEO of Honywell, as a member of the Commission, urged fellow members to put traditional politics aside:

Mr. DAVE COTE (CEO, Honeywell): We’re being watched by countries who consider us past our prime because we can no longer rally as Americans to accomplish the tough things. As a country, we need to stop the demagoguing, where everyone just runs to their neutral corner and yells and screams at the other guys.

Mr. Cote’s observation is reflected in things like the inability of the U.S. to dictate terms on international trade agreements such as ACTA. Where once the U.S. could force countries to alter their intellectual property laws as a precondition of accessing our markets, we now find the USTR begging on bended knee for trading partners to please throw some crumbs to Hollywood and the recording industry.

I would suggest that all these stories — our utter unwillingness to fund the development of broadband infrastructure, the growing contempt for public funding for things designed to make “elite culture” more accessible, and our decline in the eyes of other nations — are related. In my grandfather’s day, the height of the Depression, we were a great people who dared to do great things. Importantly, we believed that we needed to do great things for the benefit of all our people. We believed in spending public money to bring cheap power to rural communities because it made us a great nation — and recognized that it made possible new industries such as Boeing and Alcoa who used that cheap power to process aluminum. We vowed to end hunger and poverty in our midst, because a Great Society should not suffer its citizens to live in squalor and despair. The entire concept of American Exceptionalism derived from our ability to come together and do things other nations thought impossible.

Now? We are increasingly becoming a small, mean people. Our chief concern is to ensure that “our tax dollars” do not go to fund someone else, while insisting that any subsidies or benefits that we receive are well deserved and overdue. We have become “an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword” among the nations. (Deut 28:37) Where once we lent, now we borrow. Where once we were high, now we are low. And our response? The return of “American Exceptionalism”, to make even the suggestion that unless we change our ways we might lose our status as the Best and Most Powerful Nation God Ever Bestowed On The World a political crime. Because — By Jingo! — nothing could ever threaten the Empire, Rule Britania and God Save the King! So we’ll have none of that sort of croaking talk here, you Bolshevik agitators.

They cry “peace, peace!” when there is no peace. In ancient Israel they jailed Jeremiah and cried “peace, peace,” as if that would somehow make the armies of Babylon retreat. We can bray about our greatness as much as we wish. Meanwhile, projects such as the NBN will continue to be built elsewhere.

Stay tuned . . . .