Thursday, May 24, 2007

Memorial Day 2007: A Baby Boomer's Appreciation 1995

I published the piece below in the Baltimore Sun almost twelve years ago now. I hadn't re-read it for many years, but when I did so today as I was contemplating the upcoming Memorial Day, it seemed to have some relevance for those of us living in America in 2007. Because it is a bit personal, maybe it reasonates just with me. It is not the usual fare found in this space. But, as a matter of personal privilege, I decided to share it anyway.

The Baltimore Sun

June 20, 1995

A Baby Boomer's Appreciation

BYLINE: Randolph J. May

FOR THE World War II generation, this year's series of 50th anniversary commemorations compellingly evoke memories of bloody battles fought in faraway places -- and of lives lost and lives spared. For that generation, the anniversaries and the names associated with these commemorations -- Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Okinawa, etc. -- call to mind times of supreme triumph and tragedy. They recall countless heroic and selfless individual acts of courage and sacrifice, even in the face of likely death, by ordinary men who were fighting for a cause in which they believed.

This is not to say that everyone who went to war in that generation was courageous and selfless. Human nature is not such. But it is true that an extraordinary number of ordinary men and women willingly volunteered in service to their country -- and thereby volunteered to die -- in a war they believed had to be won to preserve freedom and certain universal values. Whether volunteers or draftees, most of them performed in the same courageous way.

With that in mind, the 50th anniversary commemorations provide the nation with an opportunity to say thank-you to those who won the war and to pay homage to those who did not return.

For the baby boomers, these commemorations stir deep emotions that we don't often express. These emotions relate to our own war, which though not as costly in terms of lives lost, was costly enough, with over 58,000 American deaths. Like World War II, Vietnam certainly produced its own share of heroism and courage on the battlefields. But if the threat to America's vital interests in our fathers' war was as stark as black and white, Vietnam was nothing if not multiple shades of gray. The national interest in fighting the Vietnam War with American combat troops was not so apparent or readily agreed-upon, particularly by those called upon to do the fighting. And even many people who asserted that the United States indeed did have vital interests at stake in Vietnam disagreed about strategy and tactics.

The debate about whether Vietnam was the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time rages to this day, 20 years after the last helicopter departed from the last Saigon rooftop. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's new book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," in which he now states that the Vietnam War was "terribly wrong" and that he and other senior officials knew it early on, provides new fodder for the Vietnam debate. History ultimately instructs, and Mr. McNamara's book no doubt will become another important component of history's instruction materials.

Regardless, however, of anyone's opinions today -- in retrospect -- about the wisdom of the objectives or conduct of the Vietnam War, there is no gain saying that many young Americans of my generation were confronted with painful choices: some volunteered to fight because they believed duty called; many were drafted and served honorably; many accepted various student and other deferments; some fled to Canada before being drafted or after being inducted; others went to prison proclaiming their convictions, rather than be drafted. Many, like me, joined the Army Reserve, where we served out our six-year commitments, but never got closer to anything resembling the fighting in Vietnam than fighting the mosquitoes and snakes in the swamps at Fort Polk, La.

Even if there were now widespread agreement in hindsight that our mission in Vietnam was ill-conceived and wrong (I'm not suggesting there is or ought to be such agreement), I believe that many of my generation who did not serve in Vietnam still harbor doubts about the individual choices we made at the time, despite what we may say publicly, or even privately. I believe many of us wonder whether our individual actions really reflected strongly held views about the rightness or wrongness of the war and its moral implications, as many proclaimed, or did such choices instead reflect a lack of personal courage on our part? We now wonder how readily we would have marched off to war like our fathers, if the rightness of our country's cause had been less ambiguous? How much less ambiguous? Finally, we question whether we should have said to the less fortunate (i.e. deferment-less) members of our generation: "Well, if you have to go, then so should I."

Being deprived of the moral clarity which confronted our fathers in their war, we were left to grapple with profound "what-ifs" about how we would have responded in less ambiguous circumstances. We can never answer definitively these nagging "what-ifs." I doubt if Mr. McNamara's book will provide the necessary cover to resolve our doubts. We can only live life on a going-forward basis -- which brings me back to this year's 50th anniversary commemorations.

These solemn commemorations give my Baby Boomer generation the opportunity to show our respect and, above all, gratitude, for the sacrifices of the war generation. When my father came home from the war after serving in Europe, he stowed away his Army uniforms, patches and other war paraphernalia. For many years, he was not much interested in talking about the war and the horrors he witnessed. Now he and some of his fellow soldiers are passing on their physical and mental remembrances.

But beyond the opportunity for final thank-yous, this season of commemoration is also a time when we baby boomers are of an age to understand that no two generations face the same challenges. While we can never know how each of us would have responded to the particular challenges and circumstances confronted by our fathers -- including being called upon to fight a war that had to be won for the country's sake -- that is not really what matters now. We can honor the war generation best by drawing inspiration from all that its members accomplished. That should help us understand that opportunities to display courage and leadership in the service of our country may take different forms in each generation. Then, not only will we honor these of the war generation, but also we will honor those of our own generation, especially those who gave their lives in Vietnam.

Randolph J. May is a Washington lawyer.

I was indeed a Washington lawyer at the time I wrote this in 1995. That has changed. But on this Memorial Day 2007, the sentiment I expressed then has not: "These solemn commemorations give my Baby Boomer generation the opportunity to show our respect and above all, gratitude, for the sacrifices of the war generation." This Memorial Day we are fighting another war in a distant place, and American soldiers are dying even as I write in Iraq and Afghanistan in the belief they are fighting to preserve the liberties we enjoy here at home. Regardless of any differences we may have about the justness of the cause--or the way it is being waged--we owe those in uniform on this Memorial Day weekend, and everyday, our highest respect and deepest gratitude.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Case of Farsightedness

National Cable & Telecommunications President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow spoke yesterday at the Media Institute, and his speech represented a fairly rare phenomenon here in Washington among leaders among major trade associations: It was farsighted in looking past current disputes to suggest major fundamental change in communications law and policy that would better reflect the new competitive marketplace realities than does the current regime. And the speech was devoid of a lot of the special pleading that one often hears in major addresses from industry trade association leaders.

The essence of McSlarrow's speech was a call for a communications paradigm that replaces the current technology-based silo approach to regulation with a competition-based model that would rely much more heavily on ex post adjudication rather than ex ante rulemaking to remedy any real marketplace abuses. That way the focus would be on a concrete complaint in the context of a specific marketplace situation. And McSlarrow called for structural reform of the FCC as well.

McSlarrow candidly acknowledged that many of his ideas were taken from the work of PFF's Digital Age Communications Act (DACA) reform project (so, as they say in the standard disclaimers, I am not an uninterested bystander here because I played a lead role in the work of the DACA project, along with Ray Gifford, Kyle Dixon, and other of my former PFF colleagues.) And McSlarrow appropriately credited Verizon's Executive Vice President Tom Tauke's "New Wires, New Rules" speech of five years ago with spurring the debate about the need for a new communications paradigm. And Senator Jim DeMint, of course, was credited for taking the DACA model and embodying it his "Digital Age Communications Act" bill, S. 2113, introduced in December 2005.

I remain convinced that the competition-based DACA approach is the correct model for the reforming our nation's communications laws. I also understand that fundamental change such as that embodied in DACA does not happen overnight in Washington, nor as a rule, should it. There is necessarily a gestation period for the bold ideas of farsighted leaders to take hold.

Kyle McSlarrow's speech at the Media Institute yesterday was in the best tradition of a leader with a case of farsightedness, a leader looking over the horizon at the road ahead, not at the present waystation. Senator DeMint has a good case of farsightedness as well. He needs for more of his congressional colleagues to share his vision.

A final but key thought: McSlarrow highlighted some of the steps that past FCC Chairmen have taken in adapting the then-current regulatory regime to changing technological and marketplace developments, starting with Dick Wiley. Current Chairman Kevin Martin has played a significant role in solidifying and extending the regime of minimal regulating broadband, and for this he deserves credit and kudos. But, frankly, I would like to see him (and whichever of his FCC colleagues are willing to go along) start using their bully pulpits and their positions as the nation's communications policy experts to articulate more forcefully and clearly the need for the fundamental paradigm change that Kyle McSlarrow articulated yesterday. Not only is there nothing improper about the Chairman and his colleagues advocating such substantive reform--while implementing and enforcing the current law--in my view it is their responsibility to do so. In the language of a bygone era, such public education and advocacy is on their "job sheets."

Back in the 1970s, CAB Chairman Alfred Kahn--who knows more than a bit about communications too--became the nation's leading advocate of deregulation of the nation's airlines, explaining to Congress and the American public why deregulation was needed and why it would serve the interests of consumer, even though there would be dislocations in particular situations.

One of the admitted difficulties of serving as an FCC Chairman or a Commissioner is that it is understandably easy to be preoccupied with today's pressing issues. The "items" just keep coming at you. In the hurly-burly of today, the natural tendency is to take a rather static or even backwards-looking view of the world. How much market share does X have right now compared with Y? How have we handled this situation in the past? But one of the characteristics of a leader is always to be looking ahead at what's over the horizon, like the scouts sent ahead of a trailing wagon train. I'd like to see Kevin Martin and his colleagues take a good look at DACA as a model for the future. I would like them to catch a good case of farsightedness.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Right Way to Regulate Violent TV

My former colleague Adam Thierer, a Senior Fellow with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, has just issued a marvelous paper, The Right Way to Regulate Violent TV. Adam's paper contains a wealth of information concerning the availability of technical controls such as the V-Chip and set-top box blocking features that can be used to filter television content. The paper contains a very useful discussion as well of non-technical controls such as informal household media rules.

Anyone interested in the debate concerning whether we need new laws or regulations dealing with TV violence should read Adam's paper. As importantly, parents concerned with understanding the tools available to "regulate" their children's TV viewing should read the paper. If they do--and if they take seriously their parental responsibilities--there would be far fewer calls for the government to do for them what they can and ought to do for themselves.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Net Neutrality: Of Chickens and Eggs

Yesterday Mark Cuban, who owns the high-def TV network HDNet, along with other enterprises too numerous to mention, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that unless there is significant continued investment in broadband infrastructure, further technological and economic advancements will be hampered. According to a Technology Daily report [subscription required], Cuban said "net neutrality" is an example of how constrained bandwidth creates conflict between consumer and broadband provider interests. Cuban said of net neutrality: "The issue goes away completely if bandwidth constraints go away."

This is probably true (for all but the hard-core net neut enthusiasts for whom the issue is never likely to go away). But it begs, or at least avoids, the important question: If net neutrality mandates were adopted, would they be more or less likely to cause bandwidth constraints to "go away"? (Because all goods are scarce in the sense that economists understand scarcity, I don't expect that bandwidth constraints will ever entirely go away.) But I am sure that bandwidth constraints are less likely to become an inhibition on Internet infrastructure growth if net neutrality mandates are not adopted. This is because these mandates prohibiting differential treatment by broadband providers of unaffiliated entities--in other words, the imposition of common carrier regulation--will inhibit the very investment and innovation that is needed to counteract bandwidth constraints.

So, if you think of a world without any bandwidth constraints as the "chicken," then Mr. Cuban is correct that you are likely not to ever see the net neutrality "egg." On the other hand, if you think of net neutrality mandates that are implemented as the "chicken," you likely would see as the "egg" a world of real and increasing bandwidth constraints.

I suspect that Mr. Cuban, being the astute billionaire businessman that he is, understands chickens and eggs in a real world practical sense. Or to put the matter another way, I suspect that Mr. Cuban understands that net neutrality mandates, if adopted, would constrain the development of consumer-friendly business models as the Internet continues to evolve, thereby dampening investment and innovation incentives--and thereby killing the chicken that is laying the golden egg.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Siriusly. Are The English Really That Different?

The NAB and other opponents of the Sirius-XM satellite merger contend that satellite radio constitutes a separate market for purposes of competitive analysis. Under this theory, the Sirius-XM merger can be charaterized, as former FTC Chairman Jim Miller did yesterday in a Washington Times piece, as "a two-down-to-one merger." Case closed if you define the market in such a narrow, static fashion.

In my essay published on CNET a couple of weeks ago, I explained why, especially in light of the dynamism in the communications marktplace, the relevant market for purposes of assessing the competitive impact of the proposed Sirius-XM merger ought not to be the narrow satellite radio market, but rather a broader audio information and communications marketplace. I won't repeat that here.

In his Washington Times piece, Miller asks: Would the "threat of switching to broadcast radio or listening an iPod really restrain the merged company from raising its prices?" I fail to understand why Miller and other merger opponents presume that America's satellite radio subscribers are so peculiar as to be immune to the effect of price hikes in the face of substitutes. And it is on this question of substitutes that a smallish item in today's Communications Daily [subscription required] caught my eye. The item reports that a new study sponsored by Sony indicates that one in three Britons listens to radio via the Internet. The study indicates "that new technology is changing listening habits." According to Sony's UK Managing Director: "Internet radio is no longer the preserve of technology enthusiasts. This research shows that it is hugely popular among millions of people from a wide range of ages."

Now Miller does not mention Internet radio as an alternative to satellite. But why not? Are the English really that different from us? I know they are peculiar in some ways. They still have a queen, for instance. But even if we suppose on this side of the pond Americans are not presently tuning in to Internet radio at quite the same one-in-three rate as the Brits, to me, it is fanciful to ignore the impact of Internet radio. And absent fundamental changes in the laws of economics, not to mention human nature, it is fanciful to think that a price hike by satellite radio would have no impact on the habits of audio consumers.