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Our Neutral Position on “Net Neutrality”

As embarrassing as it is to admit, we have only the vaguest idea about how this newfangled “internet” thingamajig you’re reading us on actually works. Which makes it hard for us to make sense of the big “net neutrality” controversy of the day.
The fuss all started when President Donald Trump’s choice of chairman of the Federal Communications convinced the other Republicans on its board to repeal a regulation imposed by President Barack Obama’s choice of FCC chairman and the rest of the board’s Democrats, and for most Americans these days that’s all they need to know to choose sides. We have no affection for Obama or Trump, though, and were thus obliged to consider all the arguments on their merit.
So far as we can glean from all the shouting about it, the “net neutrality” regulation required internet service providers to allow their customers access to all sites that post on the internet and at the same download speeds. Our understanding is that internet service providers are those people you pay every month for your internet, and are the “ISP” that you’re supposed to type into those pesky “pop-up” boxes that pop up whenever your internet thingamajig goes off-kilter. There are only so many of these very profitable companies, so far as we can tell, and according to all our friends who live out in the Kansas boondocks they’re lucky if the current regulations compel any of them to offer their services in such unprofitable areas, so it’s hard even for such instinctively de-regulating Republicans such as our ourselves to take a rooting interest in them.
Any liberal Democrats who accordingly choose sides must acknowledge, though, that all the “content providers” who are opposed to the de-regulation include some very profitable business interests as well. “Content providers” are apparently all the people who post on the internet, even such sympathetic pajama-clad mom and pop operations such as ourselves, but they’re also that Netflix outfit that’s suddenly as big a player in Hollywood as any studio or network, those Google guys who have a picture of your house with the garbage can still on the curb and are threatening to start driving your car for you, along with such nefarious characters as Microsoft and all those quickly conglomerating media giants.
Liberals love to decry the corrupting influence of big business on American politics, but they never seem to understand that the various big businesses have very varying interests. Federal regulators have their own interests in resolving the conflicts, which mostly derive from the interests of the political parties that appointed them, and with no one to root for but the lowly consumer it’s best to resolve these matters on the merits of the arguments. In this case the liberal argument is that unrestrained service providers will have an economic incentive to steer their customers to their preferred content providers, which seems reasonable enough, but the conservative counter-argument is that if they did so in a free market their customers would go elsewhere, and even in such a limited marketplace as the IPS biz is these days that also seems reasonable enough.
The Republican rule that regulations have a constraining effect on economic activity is self-obvious and usually reliable, but even such conservative souls as ourselves have to admit it’s not infallible.
We once co-authored a history of a local country and western radio station, which was for a long while the best got-danged country and western radio station in the whole wild world, and in the course of our exhaustive research we learned how the FCC first came into being back during the impeccably pro-business and Republican but un-fondly remembered administration of President Herbert Hoover. Radio was the newfangled mass communications thingamajig of the time, with all the savvy business interests of the time eagerly buying in, but a free market free-for-all proved unprofitably chaotic.
Without any regulation the radio stations such as the one we wrote about had an economic incentive to ramp up their wattage to a point it drowned out their competitors, who then had an economic incentive to ramp up their wattage, and even such a ruthless businessman as Hoover realized the government had to assure each content provider enough space on the AM dial to provide the lowly consumer with choices. A profitable industry resulted, Americans were suddenly communicating with one another from coast-to-coast, a lot of great American music and comedy and drama were aired along with a lot of crackpot commentary from right-wing and left-wing kooks, and even liberals will admit it was one of Hoover’s good ideas.
Since then the FCC has had a more decidedly mixed record, with both liberals and conservatives objecting at any given time, depending on which party is in power, and by now we won’t offer any guess about “net neutrality.” We still haven’t figured out how our car’s radio actually works, much less this even more newfangled “internet” thingamajig, yet our bewilderment only bolsters our faith that in the long run it really doesn’t matter.
By now we’ve seen enough to know that lawsuits are already being filed, the opposing profitable business interests are already laying out big money for lobbying, political parties come in and out of power, and that these slow-moving dinosaurs are always a step or two behind the faster pace of technological evolution. Right now someone far smarter than ourselves, and even smarter than those big business interests and federal regulators, is coming up with some newfangled thing that causes an even bigger fuss.
In the meantime we won’t worry that any of the internet service providers will discriminate against our content, which is very wordy and video-free and causes little strain on the bandwidth, and is too little-read to cause much controversy, and so long as we can watch YouTube and Netflix at a reasonable speed we have no dog in this fight.

— Bud Norman

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Pining for the Pre-Depression Days of Al Smith and Herbert Hoover

One of the great traditions in American politics, at least during the more normal presidential election years, is the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s dinner in New York City. Named for the four-time New York governor who became the first Catholic presidential nominee as the Democratic standard-bearer in the ’28 race, the foundation raises money for Catholic charities and hosts an annual swanky big-bucks white-tie affair that always attracts the cream of New York’s political and business and media and social elites, and every leap year’s dinner features both presidential contenders taking a night off from the campaign’s acrimony to make self-deprecating jokes about themselves and lighthearted joshes about the opponent.
In this crazy election year, of course, it didn’t work out that way.
This year the dinner was inconveniently scheduled the day after what turned out to be an especially acrimonious debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump, and both candidates were facing a tough crowd. Some hacked computers files made public by Wikileaks have recently revealed some of Clinton’s staffers making anti-Catholic remarks, and the New York press has recently quoted some high-ranking church official’s taking exception to Clinton’s maximalist positions on abortion. Trump’s unpopularity with New York’s political and business and media and social elites is more longstanding, and his recent rhetoric about how they’re all part of a system rigged against him hasn’t helped. Throw in that Trump doesn’t do self-deprecation or light-hearted joshing, and Clinton has no apparent sense of humor of any sort, and the affair was off to a bad start before the first glass of wine was served.
Trump was given the first opportunity to prove how very charming and witty and likable he was, but for some reason chose not to even try. Coming on to polite applause, Trump got a laugh by pointing out a couple of pols and talking about they used to love him back when he was a Democrat, got another laugh by noting how many people in the room have known and loved for so many years, bragged how they use to seek his donations, then groused that they all hate him now that he’s a Republican. Noting the tradition of making self-deprecating jokes, Trump got a few laughs about how uncharacteristic that would be, did some joshing with the Cardinal seated nearby how they both have fancy buildings on Fifth Avenue, and humbly conceded that “nobody can compete with God, is that right? No contest.” He then launched into Clinton with a joke about her bumping into him and saying “pardon me,” and how he had offered him an ambassadorship to Iraq or Afghanistan, and noting that she usually charged more for speeches to rich people, all of which was in the spirit of the event and got a few polite chuckles. Then he compared Clinton unfavorably to his long-time tabloid nemesis Rosie O’Donnell, which clearly made the crowd uncomfortable, and made a joke about how the assembled media were working on Clinton’s behalf, which came off rather bitter.
He shifted back to self-deprecating mode with a joke about how the media will praise Michelle Obama for making a great speech but criticize his wife for making the exact same speech, which got a good laugh, but it was mostly deprecating his wife, and isn’t likely to help his gender gap in the polls. From that point on the joshing was noticeably less light-hearted, as Trump started snarling jokes about Clinton telling her father confessor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation “she couldn’t remember 39 times,” and such gems as “Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission. How corrupt do you have to be? Pretty corrupt.” There was some further criticism of her corruption that didn’t seem a joke at all, then a line about how she was invited by e-mail but didn’t learn until Wikileaks revealed, then another non-joke about Clinton taking public and private positions, which set up what he seemed to think was a joke about Clinton “pretending not to hate Catholics.”
The material probably would have killed at one of Trump’s rallies, where the crowds are adorned in “Make America Great Again” ball caps and “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts, but the white-tied and elegantly gowned crowd of New York’s elites were loudly booing him by that point, which kind of deflated a closing joke about “Hillary Clinton’s isn’t laughing as much as the rest of us.” He made a slight recovery with some kind words about the good works done by Catholic charities, and left to some straining-to-be-polite applause, but the press was already rushing to print negative reviews about Trump’s “screed.”
Few politicians in American history have ever had greater need to come across as witty and charming and likable than Clinton, and we’ll have to concede she was savvy enough to take full advantage of the opportunity. She started by noting that Al Smith’s running mate was from Arkansas and a boyhood hero of her husband, which seemed to endear her to the Catholics in the crowd, then launched into the old self-deprecating shtick with a joke about she’s taken time off her “rigorous nap schedule” to be there and provided her own joke about she usually charges big bucks for a speech to rich people. She got a few laughs with a subtle joke about being up against a stained-glass ceiling, bigger laughs an inside-New York joke about the mayor and the governor’s rivalry, polite twitters with a josh about formal pantsuits, flattered the crowd that they were a “basket of adorables,” and then launched into Trump. She invited him to stand up and shout “wrong” while she was talking and had something about him letting her take the stage in “a peaceful transition of power,” which got a few laughs, and remarked that after hearing Trump’s speech she was “looking forward to hearing Mike Pence deny that he ever gave it,” which even we thought pretty clever. The jokes got more barbed at that point, suggesting that Trump would think the dinner had been rigged, and how he looked at the Statue of Liberty “and saw a 4, maybe a 5 if she dropped the torch and tablet and changed her hair.”
The crowd was a little nervous at that point, even though they cheered her line about how “a good number for a woman would be 45,” as in the 45th president, but Clinton shrewdly shifted back to self-deprecation, joking about how it took a village to right her jokes and how she’s been the life of every party she’s ever attended, “and I’ve been to three.” Veering back to attack mode, she spoke of how difficult it is for Trump to read from a teleprompter when he has to translate from the original Russian, and how sensible mainstream Republicans are now known as “Hillary supporters,” then offered a bipartisan jape about how at least the election will be over. She tossed a few friendly jabs at the assembled Democratic grandees, a less friendly jab at former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, and responded to Trump’s recent allegations that she’s using performance enhancing drugs with a joke about he hadn’t prepared, another joke about Trump’s reputation for stiffing his contractors, another joke about Pence, a line about shortening the election season that got applause even from Trump, another sharp jab about Trump’s feud with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Much of it pushed up against the event’s collegial traditions enough to render the laughter slightly nervous, and the quality of jokes varied wildly, but the delivery was low-key and amiable enough that even the pro-Trump outskirts of the press will have a hard time calling it a “screed.”
Clinton ended with a more serious few moments about the anti-Catholic prejudice that Al Smith faced during that long-ago presidential race, threw in some lines about Pope Francis’ recent remarks about “building bridges instead of walls,” and seemed to assure the assembled Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals that whatever their disagreements regarding abortion she didn’t hate Catholics. Off course the political and business and media and social elites were already assured she didn’t hate them, so she walked off to a much bigger hand than Trump received, at which we point we were composing our own joke about which candidate had the bigger hands. All in all we’d say she came off  somewhat more witty and charming and likable than Trump, which is not saying much, and at this point in this crazy election we’d say that’s pretty darned bad news for Trump. America deserves better than these two jokers, and so does the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s fancy-schmantzy dinners.

— Bud Norman

If He’s So Rich, How Come He Ain’t Smart?

A healthy ego is required to run for the presidency of the United States, but Donald Trump takes it to his characteristic levels of excess. The tendency was on full display Tuesday during the announcement of his campaign for the nation’s highest office, where he boasted of his top-secret-but-foolproof plan to defeat the Islamic State, confidently predicted that “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” bragged that his nearby Gucci store was worth more than Mitt Romney, and described himself as “the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far.”
The oft-bankrupt real estate mogul and longtime reality television series star clearly isn’t running on the usual aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-regular guy shtick that fabulously wealthy Democrats such as Hillary Clinton routinely employ, and we must admit that he’s at least savvy enough to know that wouldn’t have worked for him, and that it probably wouldn’t have hurt the aforementioned Romney to have been a little less defensive about his more honestly earned and more generously shared wealth, but surely some small measure of humility is required to actually be the President of the United States. We’ve read enough Greek dramas to know about hubris and nemesis, and enough of the Bible to know that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall, and when you throw in that ridiculous haircut of his and the embarrassment of a long-running reality television show Trump seems to be just asking for it. While we admire financial acumen just as much as the next guy, or at least the next Republican guy, we also have to quibble with his rather limited definition of success.
Trump might or might not be the richest person ever to run for the presidency, depending on which accounting of his extremely complicated spreadsheets you choose to believe, but that hardly makes him the most successful. George Washington had successfully led a rag-tag army of farmers and merchants to victory over the world’s mightiest military, which is at least as impressive as getting rich, which we he also did. Alexander Hamilton’s failed candidacy came after he had played a key role in that same rag-tag army’s victory, and then as the first Secretary of the Treasury had set up an American financial system that was the most successful wealth-generator in history until our recent profligacy ruined it, and we’re further impressed that he selflessly chose not to enrich himself in the process. Ulysses S. Grant had successfully forced the legendarily wily Robert E. Lee to Appomattox, which most historians agree was of far greater significance than his numerous failures as a businessman. Dwight Eisenhower had led a fissiparous coalition of out-gunned countries to victory over the Nazis, thus saving the world from history’s greatest calamity, and one needn’t be a historian to see how that’s a bigger deal than a Gucci store and an Atlantic City casino. That Trump measures success only in terms of dollars and cents, and even then by the most favorable accounting methods, is as problematic as his ego.
Other past presidential candidates have offered up impressive resumes full of notable successes, as well, and in many cases they’ve haven’t resulted in successful presidencies. Herbert Hoover had become quite wealthy with his international mining ventures, and he did so without the benefit of inherited wealth and in a way that won him world-wide acclaim for his ethical business practices, then volunteered for such hard jobs as coordinating relief efforts for Europe after World I, coordinating similar relief efforts for the victims of the Great Mississippi Flood, and serving as Commerce Secretary during the boom years of the Coolidge administration, and he was widely regarded as spectacularly successful in each of these tasks. He’s now regarded as one of the least successful presidents, however, and we think that’s largely due to all the counter-productive tinkering he did to overcome the Great Depression because he believed in his own powers more than he did the resilience of the free enterprise system. George H.W. Bush had a resume that not only included a successful private sector career but also public service posts ranging from Central Intelligence Agency director to Ambassador to China to being Vice President during the most successful presidential administration of our lifetime, and a similar confidence in himself had less dire consequences but slowed the momentum from the aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-B-movie-actor Reagan years.
Pretty much every presidential candidate ever has had a less a ridiculous haircut than Trump, going all the way back to the powdered wig days and even through the era when the bald were still eligible for the job, and none of them ever became famous for saying “you’re fired” to the sorts of desperate attention-seekers who co-star on cheesy reality television shows, and even the egotistical likes of John Kerry and Barack Obama preferred to let their allies in the mainstream press talk about how they would be the greatest presidents God ever created, and all of these things also figure into our definition of successful. By our accounting Donald Trump isn’t anywhere near the most successful person to run for president, and we have no doubt he’d be a spectacularly unsuccessful president, and his candidacy seems the quixotic quest of one of those desperately attention-seeking sorts you find on cheesy reality shows. The money and the name recognition and the desire of much of the media to portray the Republican nomination race as a freak show will bring him plenty of attention, and the fabulously wealthy and downright ridiculous Ross Perot has already proved that a certain percentage of the country can fall for it, but the sooner he’s out of this race the better.

— Bud Norman