When They Abolished the FCC

Every now and then someone writes that it is time to abolish the FCc= “An Obscene Waste of Energy,” writes Adam Penenberg, an assistant professor at NYU, in Wired, noting “$1.75 million in fines against Howard Stern.” Penenberg believes the FCC is hopelessly captured by big business.

The big thinkers at the opposite end of the political spectrum, a group calling itself the Progress and Freedom Foundation, argues: “Asking the FCC to define the public interest for the communications sector is akin to asking a hypothetical Federal Automobile Commission to define what types of cars consumers will demand next year and then determining which firms should be able to supply them and on what terms.” These sorts of statements display the right’s talent at constructing hyperbolic analogies, and their inability to distinguish between private choice and public good. The libertarian right believes the apostles of new technology and the marketplace are sufficient to address all the communications needs of Americans if that devil of the FCC would just leave them alone.

Perhaps the most persistent source for these sentiments is a book by Peter W. Huber, Law and Disorder in Cyberspace: Abolish the FCC and Let Common Law Rule the Telecosm. Huber writes: “The administrative structures, their statutory mandates, and the whole logic of commission control reflected the political attitudes of the New Deal. Markets didn’t work; government did. Competition was wasteful; central planning was efficient. A fateful choice was made: Marketplace and common law were rejected. Central planning and the commission were embraced.” What Huber conveniently skips over is the reason for the New Deal, namely the Great Depression, caused in large part by the inability of common law and the reluctance of a government beholden to big business to regulate the marketplace.

Every now and then the erstwhile killers of the FCC reach back and quote the most unfortunate of Jefferson’s remarks, namely that “that government is best which governs least.” And they forget that he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “in order to secure these rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The cry to abolish the FCC is another more extreme variant of the call for deregulation – the myth that somehow we can avoid the hard and complex choices of what our representatives in government should protect or license by simply not creating rules.

But despite the illogic, the historical mal-constructions, and the pile of numbers added by economists of the correct faith, these sorts of “destroy the rascal” statements get attention because of their emotion. Let’s face it, anger sells and these over-the-top reactions seem so, well, satisfying. Who doesn’t like to see the bad guy, even in the form a hapless bureaucrat, finally get his comeuppance by dying a spectacularly gory death in the latest Hollywood series of explosions? And yet, sometimes a rational debate or even just encouraging the bloviator to take a deep breath is not enough.

In the mid-1960s Douglas Turner Ward wrote a satirical play in response to the major media’s hand-wringing over “What Does the Negro Want?” The play was “Day of Absence” and it was about a day in America when all the black Americans just disappeared. In 2004, director Sergio Arau performed a similar service with the movie “A Day Without a Mexican.” Well, just imagine . . .

One day after a particularly stormy night in Washington, D.C., a strong wind blew through town followed by a bright white light that seemed to burst like a laser very early in the morning on the Library of Congress. When the librarians who dutifully watch over the dozens of volumes of the Code of Federal Regulations arrived that morning they discovered a luminous crystal emitting not only a light too bright to gaze upon but an annoying buzz. And then they discovered all the volumes of Title 47 were missing. Even more remarkable, when the K Street lawyers, the lobbyists at the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Telecommunications Association and the U. S. Telephone Association arrived at their offices, all the volumes of CFR Title 47 were missing as well. What’s more, the Federal Communications Commission offices in Washington and around the country were all empty.

In fact, it was soon apparent that no one had any record of any of the regulations related to the communications industry and slowly, imperceptibly, all memory of any regulation of the communications industry was fading. It was as if the communications industry had been completely deregulated.

Aside from the presence of the strange object at the Library of Congress, the first signs of this were the confused stares greeting the several hundred communications attorneys as they arrived at their plush offices. Who were these well-fed men and women and why had they taken residence in an otherwise busy law firm? What expertise did they bring and what clients were they supposed to serve?

There was an unfocused feeling of elation at the offices of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, but that did not last. Suddenly they couldn’t find Rush Limbaugh on the radio dial; in fact, they couldn’t recognize much of anything on the radio because of the constant interference of “amateur” radio operators. Someone attempted to call Rush to find out what had happened only to find themselves yelling over a static-filled line and cursing the interruptions of pranksters. They hung up and dialed the number again (in fact they had Rush on speed dial) but were connected to another party. Apparently the numbering protocols had all gone awry.

Suddenly, outside a loudspeaker on a slowly rolling truck was blaring a message asking everyone to stay indoors. Traffic lights were no longer working properly. Planes and helicopters were having trouble flying and landing because of all the interference preventing communication between pilots and the air traffic control operators. In fact, even health care facilities were having trouble because of radio interference with life-support equipment.

Wall Street was in a panic. There was no way to effectively communicate the price of pork bellies from Chicago, the market rate of gold in Switzerland, or even the value of the dollar in Japan. Communication lines were either jammed or ineffective not only across the U.S. but around the world. Many countries were preparing petitions to deliver, by missile if necessary, in response to the disruption caused to their communications systems by lawlessness in the United States. This was a clear violation of several international treaties and was viewed by some as an outright act of war. And of all the times to have the rest of the world upset with the U.S., the Pentagon and all the armed forces were completely paralyzed by the inability to communicate.

The White House brain trust met about the national emergency, but they could not even issue a color-coded warning about what they were certain was another terrorist attack. Karl Rove quickly issued orders to organize motorcades to gather together all the leaders of organizations working in the communications field. A capacity crowd filled the situation room and demanded in unison the establishment of an expert agency to create comprehensive regulations to sort out all the problems with telephone, broadcasting, cable, satellite, and Internet communications. As one eloquent speaker put it, “In order to exercise our God-given freedom to communicate we need order!”

Congressman Barton then suddenly awoke soaked with sweat, yelling “Order, order!” And then he realized, with great relief, that deregulation and the elimination of the FCC was just a nightmare.

Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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