Saturday, May 17, 2014

It's All Related

I liked this piece by David Atkins over at Digby's blog discussing the financial pressure large corporations are putting on politicians to "vote the right way" on Net Neutrality issues, because he ties that behavior to a larger problem in our economy: the privileging of the rentier class at the expense of everyone else.
ISPs attempting to rid themselves of pesky net neutrality in order to charge a toll for higher speeds online is a classic example of rent seeking. Comcast didn't do anything to earn the right to charge those prices. The taxpayers funded most of the infrastructure of the Internet. Comcast is simply one of the companies that made it to the top of the heap when we foolishly privatized the profits of the internet investment We the People made. Now they want to strip net neutrality regulations in order to charge a toll for no good reason at all.

Rent seeking is at the heart of much of the economic malaise we suffer from. Exorbitant and pervasive rent-seeking is a byproduct of the misguided move to worship asset ownership instead of working wages.

Using our utterly corrupt money-is-speech election donation system to buy rules to allow greater rent seeking is the epitome of economic evil in politics. And Comcast and John Boehner are right in the middle of it.
Economist Paul Krugman has long been writing about this dynamic and how it affects every-day policy decisions (such as higher tax rates on earned income vs. lower tax rates on investment income) as well as government responses to economic crises:
Ask for a coherent theory behind the abandonment of the unemployed and you won’t get an answer. Instead, members of the Pain Caucus seem to be making it up as they go along, inventing ever-changing rationales for their never-changing policy prescriptions.
While the ostensible reasons for inflicting pain keep changing, however, the policy prescriptions of the Pain Caucus all have one thing in common: They protect the interests of creditors, no matter the cost. Deficit spending could put the unemployed to work — but it might hurt the interests of existing bondholders. More aggressive action by the Fed could help boost us out of this slump — in fact, even Republican economists have argued that a bit of inflation might be exactly what the doctor ordered — but deflation, not inflation, serves the interests of creditors. And, of course, there’s fierce opposition to anything smacking of debt relief.
Who are these creditors I’m talking about? Not hard-working, thrifty small business owners and workers, although it serves the interests of the big players to pretend that it’s all about protecting little guys who play by the rules. The reality is that both small businesses and workers are hurt far more by the weak economy than they would be by, say, modest inflation that helps promote recovery.
No, the only real beneficiaries of Pain Caucus policies (aside from the Chinese government) are the rentiers: bankers and wealthy individuals with lots of bonds in their portfolios.
Krugman then goes on to discuss the reasons why policy is made on behalf of the rentiers:
And that explains why creditor interests bulk so large in policy; not only is this the class that makes big campaign contributions, it’s the class that has personal access to policy makers — many of whom go to work for these people when they exit government through the revolving door. The process of influence doesn’t have to involve raw corruption (although that happens, too). All it requires is the tendency to assume that what’s good for the people you hang out with, the people who seem so impressive in meetings — hey, they’re rich, they’re smart, and they have great tailors — must be good for the economy as a whole.
I am not sure what we as regular non-billionaire citizens can do anymore to combat this nexus of money and power. To circle back to the Net Neutrality question, I was just reading an article by David Deyen in the New Republic that took a hopeful view of the situation, arguing that people-powered activism is making a difference in the fight to keep the internet an even playing field:
When Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler initially proposed rules to allow telecoms to charge Internet companies for access to a “fast lane” to speed content to their users, plenty of people sounded the death rattle for the principle of net neutrality. A few weeks later, despite today’s passage of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on a party-line vote similar to Wheeler’s original plan, the tenor of the debate has shifted. Under massive public pressure, the FCC has shown itself more responsive than Congress, opening up a legitimate debate over the rules. Tech firms have linked arms with the public against the Wheeler proposal. And what activists consider the only path to true net neutralityreclassifying broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act as a common carrier service, allowing the FCC to regulate it like phone lineshas moved from an impossible dream to a more viable alternative.
People power did thisthat allegedly outdated work of targeted mass organizing that isn’t supposed to make a difference in our increasingly oligarchical society. Over 3.4 million Internet users took action in some form against the FCC’s proposed ruled in the past three weeks, according to Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron. Dozens of protesters “occupied” the FCC, camping out for a week in tents, joined by hundreds in a mass rally today outside the meeting room.
Call me cynical, but I can't help but think the forces mentioned in Deyen's next paragraph had just a little bit more to do with the FCC's (maybe) change-of-heart than a bunch of "techno-hippies" writing letters and waving signs:
The grassroots pressure got tech firms off the sidelines. Over 100 of them, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, publicly opposed Chairman Wheeler’s rules, arguing that the rules should not allow “individualized bargaining and discrimination.” 
Without the vocal (and, presumably, financial) opposition of mega-corps like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others for whom the internet is their lifeblood, I think the end of Net-Neutrality would already be a done deal.

Don't get me wrong, I still participate in the Moral Monday protests here on a local level, and I call my elected representatives to let them know we little people still exist, but in this post Citizens United world, I think it is going to take massive citizen organization over a long period of time to get the pendulum swinging back the other way.

It is going to be a long hard slog, a la the labor movement in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and the Civil Rights movement. But I guess I should take hope that progress did come out of those efforts. I just hate to think how bad things are going to have to get before enough of us are out there demanding change this time.

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