Will the Government Be the New King of All Media?

Howard Stern swore off free broadcast radio in 2004 in part because of federally mandated decency rules. The self-annointed “king of all media” may have stepped off the throne in doing so. Them’s the breaks in the competitive media marketplace, contorted as it is by government speech controls.

Some would argue that a new king of all media is seeking the mantle of power now that the Obama administration is ensconced and friendly majorities hold the House and Senate. The new pretender is the federal government.

And some would argue that the Free PressChanging Media Summit” held yesterday here in Washington laid the groundwork for a new federal takeover of media and communications.

That person is not me. But I am concerned by the enthusiasm of many groups in Washington to “improve” media (by their reckoning) with government intervention.

Free Press issued a report yesterday entitled Dismantling Digital Deregulation. Even the title is a lot to swallow; have communications and media been deregulated in any meaningful sense? (The title itself prioritizes alliteration over logic — evidence of what may come within.)

Opening the conference, Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, harkened to Thomas Jefferson — well and good — but public subsidies for printers, and a government-run postal system, model his hopes for U.S. government policies to come.

It’s helpful to note what policies found their way into Jefferson’s constitution as absolutes and what were merely permissive. The absolute is found in Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

Among the permissive is the Article I power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” There’s no mandate to do it and the scope and extent of any law is subject to Congress’ discretion, just like the power to create patents and copyrights, which immediately follows.

I won’t label Free Press and all their efforts a collectivist plot and dismiss it as such — there are some issues on which we probably have common cause — but a crisper expression of “dismantling deregulation” is “re-regulation.”

It’s a very friendly environment for a government takeover of modern-day printing presses: Internet service providers, cable companies, phone companies, broadcasters, and so on.

Telling and Fighting

There is a popular argument that, what with two wars underway, this is no time to rock the military by abolishing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and letting homosexuals serve openly. That’s basically what the secretary of defense says.

This post by Stephen Walt reminded me that the opposite is true: that wars are an opportunity to change dumb personnel policies. The end of war in Iraq will deprive advocates of equality in military service of one of their best arguments: restrictions on who the military can employ undermine the effort to win. And the best advocates for the change are current and former service members making that point.

Rachel Maddow had a good segment the other day on the topic. Her guests were a gay, Arabic-speaking lieutenant who is being booted out of the Army National Guard for coming out, and former rear admiral and now Pennslyvania congressman Joe Sestak, who is co-sponsoring legislation to change the law.

I predict that allowing gays to serve openly will be like allowing women on navy ships or even gay marriage. Lots of people fight it. Then it happens, it’s no big deal, and everyone forgets what they were so upset about.

New at Cato: Nat Hentoff on Hate Crimes

With the support of President Obama, so-called “hate crime” legislation is on the move in Congress. According to Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff, laws that punish one time for the crime and another time for the hate violate the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment and protections against Double Jeopardy.

In April, Hentoff spoke at the Cato Policy Perspectives seminar in New York City about the current expansion of hate crime legislation.

Former President Fox: “Legalize Drugs”

Mexico’s former President, Vicente Fox, joins the growing chorus of Latin American ex-presidents calling for an end on the war on drugs. He’s proposing an open debate on drug legalization.

It’s a shame, though, that these leaders wait until they are out of office to voice their opposition to Washington’s prohibitionist drug strategy. While it’s true, as Fox points out, that any step towards legalization in the region must be supported by the United States, Latin American presidents skeptical of the status quo could use the pulpits at the United Nations, Organization of American States, or the Summits of the Americas to denounce the war on drugs and call for different approaches.

Still, Fox’s opinion on the matter is welcome.

Old Enough to Die for Your Country, Too Young for a Credit Card

While much of the debate around the so-called “Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights” has been on ending various card policies aimed at disguising different credit risks, one group of cardholders is certain to lose their right to credit under this bill: adults between the ages of 18 and 21.

Under the current Senate bill, the only way for someone under the age of 21 to get a credit card would be either:

1) they have a co-signer, such as their parent, sign for it, or

2) they maintain a job with sufficient income to cover any obligations arising from the credit card.

By contrast, neither of these requirements is put in place for student loans; there is the clear expectation that you pay those loans back in the future from your increased future income that results from going to college. While the purpose of a student loan is to offer one the means to get a higher education, the purpose of any form of credit is to borrow against your future earnings in order to enjoy some consumption today. Whether that consumption is in the form of textbooks or beer and pizza should be left up to the individual—we are talking about adults here—and not the state.

As with any legislation, there are likely to be substantial unintended consequences. Of the approximately 18 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges, some number of those will not want to give up their credit cards (maybe they value their beer and pizza) and will accordingly take what may be their only option to maintain that consumption: a job in addition to their studies. As with any choice in lift, this one comes with a trade-off. One of the primary factors related to whether one graduates from college is if one is holding a job while in college—the relationship being that the more hours a student works unrelated to classes, the less likely they are to finish college. Some students are going to take that trade-off. That means one impact of this bill will be that slightly fewer students will finish college. If we are ever to expect college students to start behaving as adults, we should start treating them as such, including allowing them to make their own credit decisions.

End the Drug War. Just Do It.

Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, says it is time to move away from the “war” rhetoric surrounding federal drug policy.  Since Kerlikowske has just assumed office, this is exactly the right thing to do – set a whole new tone from the militarized approach we have seen over the past 20-30 years. 

Drug abuse is a problem that must be dealt with, but we don’t need to send troops to Latin America, we don’t need former generals like Barry McCaffrey to oversee drug policy, and we don’t need police officers conducting raids on American homes with machine guns and  flash bang grenades.

The political climate on drug policy is shifting.  Republican governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger are calling for an open debate on legalizing marijuana.  New York is finally discarding its Rockefeller drug laws.  And Latin American leaders are urging the U.S. to reverse course.  Obama seems interested in a new direction but the appointment of a sensible law enforcement official like Kerlikowske and talk of “more treatment” is not enough.  We need more decisive action away from the criminalized approach to drug policy.  The time is right to just do it.

For Cato research on this subject, go here.

Haass: Defining ‘Success’ Down

Richard Haass’s op ed in today’s Post is worth a read. Sure, it amounts to a well-placed advertisement for his new book, War of Necessity, War of Choice. And it’s not like Haass, current president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and former director of policy planning at the State Department, lacks for exposure. But while I would quibble with his characterization of the first Gulf War as “necessary”, it is refreshing for a man so firmly fixed in the foreign policy establishment to focus not on the United States’ supposed capacity for refashioning the global order, but rather on the limits of our power.

He urges President Obama to resist the impulse to expand our objectives in Afghanistan, and should not dedicate far more resources to the effort if we appear to be falling short of a few modest goals. He wisely counsels that the United States is unlikely to convince Iran to forego nuclear enrichment or North Korea to give up its weapons, and we should therefore focus on the more essential and achievable tasks of intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and pressure on North Korea (in concert with China) to prevent material and technology from being diverted to others.

He concludes:

Some will argue that defining success down is defeatist. And certainly, one can imagine an Afghanistan or an Iraq that becomes a Jeffersonian democracy and an Iran or a North Korea that gets out of the nuclear business. But such outcomes are improbable at best and more likely fantasy. Moreover, far greater involvement and investment would still fail to bring them about.

The alternatives are outcomes that are good enough and commensurate with interests and costs. The moment calls for defining success down. The United States is stretched economically and militarily. Better partial success we can afford than expensive failures we cannot.

Les Gelb, CFR’s former president, makes similar arguments in his latest book, Power Rules.

Few people in Washington rise through the ranks by talking about what we can’t or shouldn’t do, which partly explains why the voices of restraint are almost always drowned out by the vocal few calling for action. (For more on this point, see Steve Walt’s recent commentary at FP.com and Justin Logan’s observations on this blog.)

At the end of the day, therefore, I’m not convinced that Haass or Gelb, or anyone else, can consistently prevail with their judicious counsel to not act. Haass was on the inside when the second Bush administration was spoiling for a fight with Saddam Hussein, and neither he nor Colin Powell was able to stop that disastrous war. (Haass told NPR’s Robert Siegel yesterday that he was only 60 percent opposed to the war, so it is not even clear that he tried that hard to stop it.)

As I explain in my book, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free, because even sensible people who are strongly opposed to foreign military intervention will often lose the intellectual battles within the executive branch, we should return to the Founders’ prescription that the war powers be controlled by the people, through the Congress, not the president. We also need to understand before we go to war how a particular military mission advances U.S. national security, and that our men and women in uniform have been given a clear and achievable objective.

If we were to get away from the dangerous and counterproductive notion that the United States is – and should forever be – the world’s policeman, we could maintain a much smaller military. It would be designed to defend vital U.S. interests, not to fight other people’s wars, and build other people’s countries. And this smaller, focused military would constrain the president’s propensity to do something, and make it easier for him to turn aside the interminable requests for U.S. assistance.

All states, even enormously powerful ones, need to make choices. Haass makes this point eloquently, and I welcome his important contribution to the debate.