Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How broadband is like healthcare

A reader sent me a link to a NY Times article on the US National Broadband Plan, suggesting that this might be a "possible topic from someone with a world view". So I'm going to talk about that, and will explain how a national broadband plan is similar to healthcare in being a form of redistribution. My apologies if that'll sometimes sound a bit like Gevlon, only that I of course would be for redistribution, and he would be against.

Any government action is a form of redistribution of wealth. The government takes money in the form of taxes, and inevitably those who have money are taxed higher than those who don't have any. Then the government spends those taxes, usually with some sort of plan that is designed to benefit everybody. The national broadband plan is one such plan. 200 million Americans already have broadband, while the remaining 100 million don't have broadband. As up to now who has broadband was handled by private companies, everybody who you could sell broadband to profitably is already served. Now the government steps in to give people a *right* to broadband, so that by a mix of applying tax dollars and regulatory force the remaining 100 million will get broadband access too. As a lofty goal, at the end of that plan everybody in the US should have a 100 Mbit broadband connection at home. That is great news for those who live in rural areas, or are too poor to afford broadband now. But as the money to pay for all this has to come from somewhere, you can bet that those who currently have both money and broadband will end up paying taxes for that plan, and higher broadband fees as well.

One part of the news about this US National Broadband Plan is that the USA is only on place 18 of an international rank of broadband access by country. Why is that? Because the 17 nations ahead of the USA in that table are less capitalist than the USA. If you live in one of the rich countries where the government is more autocratic, or there is more of a welfare state, chances are that you'll also have better broadband. And better healthcare than the USA. Because universal healthcare, just like universal broadband access, is one of these things a strong government will push through, for the benefit of the less fortunate, against the wishes of their richer citizens.

Now some people like to paint this in black and white, with the capitalist USA in one corner, and the "socialist" Europe in the other. That is nonsense. There is a huge grey scale, on which the two aren't actually all that far apart. Paying taxes to finance schools, even if you don't have children, or to finance roads, even if you don't have a car, is redistribution too, and it happens on both sides. There is welfare and unemployment benefits on both sides of the Atlantic too, only in differing degrees. But in other areas there are stronger differences: Bismarck, who certainly wasn't a socialist, introduced universal health care in Germany in 1883; the USA is still discussing the idea in 2010. Some European countries, especially those in which the state had or still has a telecom monopoly, already have universal, affordable broadband, sometimes aided by geography, as connecting everybody is easier in small, densely populated countries.

It isn't all that easy to draw a line and say what government redistributive action is good, and what is bad. Those saying they would want to stop all of it probably haven't thought of how they would live without roads, schools, and hospitals. Me, personally, I think universal healthcare is a good idea. I even think welfare is a good idea if you don't overdo it. In general I approach those sort of questions with the thought of what happens if we don't give out healthcare or welfare. And seeing how much more likely Americans are to die early than Europeans, or seeing how much more of their population the USA has to put into prison, I prefer the European model, in spite of it obviously having flaws of its own. It turns out that social housing plus enough welfare to buy a TV and junk food is considerably cheaper and thus more effective than a prison cell. I'm not so sure that universal broadband access is a right every citizen should be entitled to, but that could change if more vital services are only reachable via the internet. In any case, as a matter of setting priorities, I think it would be better to stop people without healthcare from dying in emergency rooms first, before making sure they have something faster than dial-up to watch YouTube on. Call me a socialist, me and my friend Bismarck.

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