The Next New Common

The day was not only the birthday of Victor Hugo (1802) and Buffalo Bill Cody (1846) and Jackie Gleason (1916) and Fats Domino (1928) and Johnny Cash (1932) – celebrate who you will – but on Friday, February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure establishing Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and on February 26, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a measure establishing Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. February 26 is a good day – no one had a problem with those new national parks. No one took to the streets in protest. No one claimed this was the end of America as we know it. In each case it seemed like a good idea at the time – and a good idea in general. This was setting aside the best and most amazing places for everyone to enjoy, and protecting those places from being exploited for profit, keeping them pretty much as they were, except for modest roads in, some parking at the edges, and the unobtrusive hiking trails and a few restrooms.

Of course this wasn’t a free-market private-sector solution to preserving a bit of natural wonder. Everyone shares these places and no one owns them, and no one is making any money. The government administers what few operations are necessary – upkeep of access and the few facilities – and that’s that. The modest amount of tax money that takes bothers no one. These are common facilities, and that might be communism, but these are our Commons.

Everyone is comfortable with that concept, an old one. Before there was America there was the Boston Common – although there was some problem with that concept and wasn’t until 1830 that matters were settled and everyone agreed that, no, this was a place for everyone, as it is today. Americans, unfortunately, do tend to argue over what constitutes The Commons – resources that are collectively owned, and thus owned by no one. People have always argued about that. The process by which the commons are transformed into private property is called enclosure, a conflict in many an eighteenth or nineteenth century British novel. The idea is that forests, fisheries or grazing land are something we all share – so when the Sheriff of Nottingham tells Robin Hood he’s poaching, Robin Hood laughs in his face and we all smile, and out here the problem is surfing in Malibu. The good waves are owned by no one, but the rich Hollywood folks own access to the waves, the expensive beachfront property, with amazing fifty-million-dollar homes. That’s private property. As they say, you can’t get there from here. And the lawsuits never seem to end.

It shouldn’t be that complicated. The commons generally includes public goods – public space (even if sometimes not the access to it), public education, and the infrastructure that allows what we have going on here to function, like roads and electricity and water delivery and sewage systems. The commons includes public utilities. This is a simple concept, there’s always a countertrend. Some hold that many of these shared-for-the-common-good things should be commoditized – the idea is that things would be better if, for example, all the public schools were closed and education were entirely for-profit, so there’d be competition. Good schools would make a ton of money and bad schools would go under, as they should. Sure, the remaining schools might end up massively exclusionary, to increase profits, but they’d be damned good – but really, if our schools had to make money to survive, they’d all be better. They’d have to be.

The same argument has been made about other public services. Out here, for a time, Enron provided much of the state’s electric power, trading and swapping energy contracts and making big money – because this really didn’t have to be public and regulated. The market is always more efficient than the government. Of course that didn’t work out well – the brownouts and blackouts brought the state to a halt, and the cost of electricity doubled and doubled again until it was twenty times higher than it ever was, because Enron could do what they wanted, and did. In July 2001, the feds had to intervene. And once again electric service out here is considered part of the commons, a public utility again, tightly regulated, for everyone’s good.

We should have known better, but it seems we need to keep thinking about these things, as explained in an article by Garrett Hardin first published in the journal Science in 1968, where he discusses The Tragedy of the Commons:

The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. Central to Hardin’s article is an example (first sketched in an 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd), of a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

That’s the problem. With shared resources, an individual, making a rational economic decision, exercises his right to the common resource and receives all the benefits of it, but the irreversible damage to the common is shared by the entire group – everyone pays for that one guy’s goodies, so to speak, while everything is ruined. That’s the tragedy of the commons. People do want to make money, to make things better for themselves and their family, and with what is shared by all, what is shared by all is eventually destroyed.

That’s what has always been at the core of the current bitter disagreements about healthcare reform – whether basic healthcare services are, like roads and sewage systems, part of the commons. Those who still want to repeal Obamacare have always argued that our basic healthcare services had been rightly commoditized – they were something you paid for, if you wish, or if you could, where large insurance companies, hospital chains and giant pharmaceutical make big money, and provide amazing services and products, that people are willing to pay for. Things had been fine. The Affordable Care Act ruined everything – but things hadn’t been fine. We paid more for less than any other advanced country in the world, while a select few made a ton of money. Obamacare addressed that. Everyone had to buy health insurance, one way or another, or pay a fine, and all of it will be tightly regulated, with strict standards, so no one is selling crappy policies, to make big bucks. Those who can’t afford the common basic insurance will get subsidies, so the pool of those insured will be a close to universal as possible, assuring the system can absorb the cost of those who get really sick. Everyone had to be all in, or it doesn’t work – and this was, in essence, creating a new commons. Republicans are still screaming holy hell about this, but this was a definitional change in how we see healthcare. Massive definitional changes are hard to accept. It’s one thing to carve out a national park or two and say it’s now part of the national commons. It’s another thing to carve out something that was in the realm of private for-profit winner-take-all capitalism and suddenly say that THAT is now part of the national commons too. Where will this end? Republicans ask that question a lot.

They’re asking it again. On February 26, 1919, Woodrow Wilson carved out the Grand Canyon National Park. On February 26, 1929, Calvin Coolidge carved out the Grand Tetons. On February 26, 2015, the FCC carved out the internet:

The Federal Communications Commission for the first time classified Internet providers as public utilities Thursday, a landmark vote that officials said will prevent cable and telecommunications companies from controlling what people see on the Web.

The move, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, was part of a sweeping set of new “net neutrality” rules aimed at banning providers of high-speed Internet access such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable from blocking Web sites they don’t like or auctioning off faster traffic speeds to the highest bidders.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler argued that the agency needed to take a dramatic step to preserve a “fast, fair and open Internet.” Broadband Internet providers will now face some of the same heavy regulations that the federal government imposes on telephone companies.

“The Internet has replaced the functions of the telephone,” Wheeler said during the commission vote. “The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”

The internet is now the commons too, but there was pushback:

Cable and telecommunications companies, as well as GOP lawmakers, quickly condemned the move as an overreach of government intervention into their businesses, and lawsuits are expected to follow.

They have argued that online companies whose services hog a lot of the Web traffic flowing to homes, such as the streaming videos of Netflix or YouTube, should share in the cost of expanding and maintaining the pipes that deliver Internet content to consumers. Without their help, the cable and telecom industry may be reluctant to upgrade and expand their networks across the country. Cable and telecommunications companies, as well as GOP lawmakers, quickly condemned the move as an overreach of government intervention into their businesses, and lawsuits are expected to follow.

They have argued that online companies whose services hog a lot of the Web traffic flowing to homes, such as the streaming videos of Netflix or YouTube, should share in the cost of expanding and maintaining the pipes that deliver Internet content to consumers. Without their help, the cable and telecom industry may be reluctant to upgrade and expand their networks across the country.

It’s too late for that:

The rules ban Internet providers from several specific activities: They can’t block or stop Web services such as Netflix. They can’t slow down or “throttle” content from particular Web sites. And they can’t speed up a Web site’s traffic, particularly in exchange for money.

The rules also apply to wireless carriers such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, which provide Internet service to tens of millions of smartphones and tablets.

Consumers should not see any immediate changes to what they see on the Internet — in some ways, Wheeler said, that was the whole point of the effort. He added that there would be no new federal taxes or fees put on Internet service providers.

“This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech,” Wheeler said.

In short, play fair with everyone, or don’t play. Those of us who have websites, like this one, are relieved. We won’t have to pay big bucks to avoid being throttled-back, even if the big boys like Amazon can easily cover that cost, and folks knew what was going on:

Through the debate, the wonky issue of net neutrality went mainstream, prompting 4 million people to file comments to the FCC, which caused its Web site to temporarily shut down. Late-night comedian John Oliver drew millions of Web users to his satirical breakdown of Wheeler’s earlier, weaker approach. A handful of protesters even sat in the driveway of Wheeler’s home to block him from getting to work and to pressure him to pass tougher rules.

“It would be hard to overstate how big of a deal this is for consumers and the future of the Internet,” said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy for Consumers Union. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We’re into the woods, really. We expect opponents to look for every angle they can to stop these rules, whether in court or in Congress.”

No, we’re not out the woods:

Despite tens of millions of corporate dollars in last-minute lobbying, the Federal Communications Commission passed new rules Thursday reclassifying the Internet as a public utility and preventing Internet service providers from artificially slowing down the web.

Now Comcast is calling “inevitable” lawsuits to nullify the rules a “certainty,” and the company says it will pressure legislators to draft a law that will override the FCC’s decision.

“After today, the only ‘certainty’ in the Open Internet space is that we all face inevitable litigation and years of regulatory uncertainty challenging an Order that puts in place rules that most of us agree with,” David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, said in a statement. “We believe that the best way to avoid this would be for Congress to act.”

Comcast, Cohen said, has “no issue with the principles of transparency and the no blocking, no throttling, and no fast lanes rules incorporated in today’s FCC Order.”

Yeah, sure:

Comcast’s history of actively blocking, throttling, and creating “fast lanes” is the very reason it is the only company in America required to abide by those rules.

In 2008, the FCC punished Comcast for slowing all traffic coming to and from BitTorrent – everything from downloaded movies to a King James Bible – without telling its customers. Three years later, Comcast agreed that it would never again artificially slow traffic to content, as part of a concession to the FCC that would allow it to merge with NBCUniversal.

But now that all Internet service is classified as a Title II utility, those sanctions are set to become truly enforceable – and not only applied when providers are caught red-handed. So the telecoms are fighting back. …

Comcast, by the way, was not alone in its willingness to block or slow traffic from specific websites. In 2013, Verizon attorney Helgi Walker stated under oath that “we should be able to [block competitors’ websites]. In the world I’m positing, you would be able to,” she added, citing a “First Amendment right” to “edit” content.

And where would that end? But then Ted Cruz offered this:

In short, net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.

The two had to be connected eventually. Republicans hate the idea of the commons in general, on principle, but he got hammered by his followers on his Facebook page:

Ed Piper: As a Republican who works in the tech industry I can say that this statement shows you either have no idea what you are talking about or you are bought and paid for by the American Cable monopoly. This is amazingly a stupid statement and is disheartening.

Keith French: Ted, I am as conservative as they come… I want government out of just about everything… and I hate to say it, really hate to say it, but Obama is right on this one. I do not want my access and internet speed controlled by my ISP. … The internet has been an open forum with little to no restrictions, that will change and not for the better. Bottom line – do not go against freedom of the net just because Obama is for it. Even an old blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

A Jinnie McManus: Goddammit, stop making my party look like morons and look up net neutrality. It doesn’t mean what you and your speechwriters think it means.

Marvin England: Ted Cruz, as a tech and fiscal conservative in Texas who generally votes Republican, I am incredibly disappointed by your completely inaccurate statement. Please read up on what Net Neutrality actually is and fire any staff you have who are advising you on technical matters.

David Vogelpohl: Texas employer here… This is really the wrong issue for you. Drop this quickly and move on to something else before it’s too late. You’re starting to look like a Tea Party whacko growling for his corporate masters. Move on before you embarrass the Republicans out of the next presidency. Net neutrality is about ensuring a free market. America loves a free market. But hey, be against free markets and America. It’s cool. I’m sure no one will think of you when their Netflix slows down who wouldn’t have before.

Jimmy Lee: Wow. I am embarrassed that I supported you Ted. Face palm. I think it’s time that I “unlike” your FB page.

That’s just a sample, but these guys don’t watch David Asman on Fox News:

Of all the government interventions by the Obama administration, the plan released Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet is the worst.

Yes, ObamaCare is massive and is clogging one-sixth of the economy. But even before ObamaCare, government had a huge imprint on the health care industry with Medicaid and Medicare. Also, regulations on pharmaceutical and insurance industries led to their energies being focused as much on pleasing government bureaucracies as curing illnesses.

But the Internet is young, fresh, alive and untainted. The FCC’s plan to muddy the pure waters of the Internet pollutes the one free flow of information on the planet. …

Republicans have been very vocal and have voted regularly for the Keystone pipeline. But they have been largely silent about the administration’s plan to regulate our information pipeline, which is far more vital to national concerns about liberty, freedom of speech and commerce.

Make no mistake. The greatest tool for freedom of expression to come along in our lifetime is in danger. One cannot have genuine freedom of expression with a government monitor, an overseer, a censor prepared to immediately shut down any “threats” to the state. This is Orwellian, even if even opponents are reluctant to say it. But they must remember that the greatest miscalculations in history are those that underrate the determination of the power hungry to grab even more power.

What free flow of information is this fellow talking about? Internet service providers have a history of throttling back sites they don’t like, the ones they think say the wrong things, or sites that do things they find irritating, the ones that cut into their profits – unless those sites pony up some big bucks. That’s restricting the free flow of information, isn’t it? But if money is free speech, as the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United – a ruling they loved – perhaps this makes sense. Pay or shut up. The internet is their private property. You’re lucky they let you use it at all. And that means that freedom of speech is the ability to pay a lot of cash to say what you want – but Asman is wrong. Here the government is not censoring anything. They simply opened this new particular Common, to everyone. It was February 26, the day for that sort of thing.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Next New Common

  1. Rick says:

    I think your describing this in terms of the “commons” was as good an explanation of this confusing issue as I’ve seen. Nicely done — although this is not to say I’m not still a bit confused.

    The source of my confusion is this: Did the FCC just turn all internet ISPs into what used to be called “Common Carriers”? If so, then I mostly get it, but if not, then I’m not following all this.

    Let me explain:

    Years before I retired, way back starting in 1980, I created the “Satellites and Circuits” department in the newly formed CNN, which put me in charge of all video and audio feeds of news, from anywhere in the world, back to CNN headquarters in Atlanta where it could be fed out into the network’s programming. As such, I had a lot of dealings with what were called “Common Carriers”, such as Western Union — which, back then, was in the business of selling video time on their satellite transponders to anybody who needed it — and AT&T — which sold time on their video and audio “landline” networks to anyone who needed it.

    Being designated “Common Carriers” meant they were subject to government regulations, including of how much they could charge, but also that they had to sell to all comers on a first-come-first-serve basis, and couldn’t discriminate between customers. Since CNN was so new in the beginning, the engineers working at AT&T weren’t used to talking with a TV network that wasn’t one of the Big Three (back then, ABC and CBS and NBC), and at first, would routinely pre-empt our orders and give them to any of the other guys who ordered after us.

    When I’d call to protest, I’d typically hear the AT&T guy say, “Yes, I realize you ordered the line first, but then CBS called and said they wanted it! I mean, they’re one of the networks!

    It took a few years of threatened lawsuits to educate them on the law — something that happened often enough, by the way, since, because of our smaller size and lack of internal bureaucracy, CNN was somewhat scrappier and light on its feet and usually got its feed orders in faster than its competitors.

    (Western Union was much more accommodating to us, largely because the other networks were flush with money back then and had a history of preferring to use the more-expensive AT&T landlines to the cheaper Western Union satellites. Later, as I understand it, Western Union got out of the TV satellite business and is now mostly known as a way to send money overseas.)

    I would go so far as to say that, had there been no laws and regulations to protect us from the big guys in our formative years, there’s a good chance CNN would never have gotten off the ground.

    But what’s interesting here is that these Republicans, many of whom seem even more confused about “net neutrality” than I am, seem to be forgetting on which side of the issue their much vaunted “freedom” is found. Freedom, in this issue of common carry, comes in being protected from the self-indulgence of the excessively powerful. The power these Republicans are asking for is to be able to do what China does with their internet: Cut the people off from all the stuff the government, in their case, doesn’t want them to see, such as information about the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square.

    To put it another way, while so many Republicans, including Ted Cruz, say they value “freedom”, they can’t often differentiate between defending the kind of freedom, say, that a freed slave enjoys, and the freedom of the plantation owner to own slaves.

    Rick

  2. Great piece. Well written and I wholeheartedly share your sentiments. Check me out at UnpopularPolitics.com

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