Saturday, April 22, 2006

Reframing the Debate on Government Itself

We Kossacks all been involved in the rebranding and reframing process for our previously hapless Democratic party.  

We've talked about reframing the war on terror.  We've talked about turning environmentalism into conservationsim.  We've talked about turning rage against "liberal elite" into rage against "economic elite".

But I haven't heard anyone talk about reframing the role of Government.  The GOP has succeeded in making "government" itself into a bad word,in a way that would make their conservative forbears in Madison and Hamilton roll in their graves.We need to make Government itself a good word again--not the jackboot fascism of BushCo, but the benevolent government that provides our roads, our schools, our water, our lights, and all the other goodies we take for granted while cutting taxes.

The problem is that the "Free Market" has been elevated to almost God-like status in this country.  The Free Market is now associated with Mom, apple pie, and Jesus Christ himself--and those associations are pretty hard to fight back against without sounding like, well, a pinko commie liberal.  As obviously flawed as the corporatized, monopoly-ridden "free market" is, the halo that the Repugs have managed to attach to it is going to be extremely difficult to remove.

Thomas Frank does his best to do exactly that in "What's the Matter with Kansas?", but in the end it will be a losing battle.

But there's hope--a perfect way to reframe the debate on government itself:


I have never seen this idea put better than by Lawrence Lessig at Wired magazine, in an article well over a year ago:

You'll be pleased to know that communism was defeated in Pennsylvania last year. Governor Ed Rendell signed into law a bill prohibiting the Reds in local government from offering free Wi-Fi throughout their municipalities. The action came after Philadelphia, where more than 50 percent of neighborhoods don't have access to broadband, embarked on a $10 million wireless Internet project. City leaders had stepped in where the free market had failed. Of course, it's a slippery slope from free Internet access to Karl Marx. So Rendell, the telecom industry's latest toady, even while exempting the City of Brotherly Love, acted to spare Pennsylvania from this grave threat to its economic freedom.

Let's hope this is just the first step. For if you look closely, you'll see the communist menace has infiltrated governments everywhere. Ever notice those free photons as you walk the city at night? Ever think about the poor streetlamp companies, run out of business because municipalities deigned to do completely what private industry would do only incompletely? Or think about the scandal of public roads: How many tollbooth workers have lost their jobs because we no longer (since about the 18th century) fund all roads through private enterprise? Municipal buses compete with private taxis. City police departments hamper the growth at Pinkerton's (now Securitas). It's a national scandal. So let the principle that guided Rendell guide governments everywhere: If private industry can provide a service, however poorly or incompletely, then ban the government from competing. What's true for Wi-Fi should be true for water.

No, I haven't lost my mind. But this sort of insanity is raging across the US today. Pushed by lobbyists, at least 14 states have passed legislation similar to Pennsylvania's. I've always wondered what almost $1 billion spent on lobbying state lawmakers gets you. Now I'm beginning to see.

He goes on to talk about how poorly the free market has served communities across America in the broadband sector, where economic interests are lacking (in poor communities) or where there are only monopolies in the markets.

He concludes with:

The solution is not to fire private enterprise; it is instead to encourage more competition. Communities across the country are experimenting with ways to supplement private service. And these experiments are producing unexpected economic returns. Some are discovering that free wireless access increases the value of public spaces just as, well, streetlamps do....

City and state politicians should have the backbone to stand up to self-serving lobbyists. Citizens everywhere should punish telecom toadies who don't. Backwater broad­band has been our fate long enough. Let the markets, BOTH PRIVATE AND PUBLIC, compete to provide the service that telecom and cable has not.

This man is brilliant, and has provided us with a template to reframe the debate on government.  Now, how to get our Dems in congress to start using this language...


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