Government intervention: Is this a good idea?

Jim BartholdLast week there was more than the normal amount of government intervention chatter, starting with Cablevision's mewling cries for FCC help in its confrontation with the big bad Fox and ending with FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski using a Washington Post column to defend the need for a National Broadband Plan (NBP).

In between, there were any number of other little things--like Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the man who would have been president had he run a better campaign, talking about how there's a need for change in the way broadcast-cable agreements are forged, and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg chiming in that something has to be done about broadcast-cable disputes. After all, we were talking about the people's right to baseball.

There was also the ongoing white noise about concessions that Comcast should make if it's going to be allowed to spend $30 billion or so to acquire NBC Universal and this being so close to mid-term elections, suggestions that a Republican sweep could impact any kind of net neutrality push.

Government interventionIt seems everybody wants the government to do something--or, in some cases, wants the government to not do something. Which makes this a good time for all parties--particularly the government and, speaking from the common-sense perspective, Cablevision--to think about how badly anyone really wants the feds to become involved with what is perceived as a bloated, arrogant, overbearing and over-expensive cable industry that is abusing its power to deliver necessary services--voice, data and the all-important World Series--to consumers.

It's reminiscent of a clamor that went up about 100 years ago or so about another industry that was perceived as bloated, arrogant, over-expensive and abusive of its power to deliver necessary services to the nation's public. That industry was the railroads; there were an increasingly consolidated and therefore powerful few of them and they did things their way, charging what they wanted for their services and generally behaving in a public-be-damned manner.

The government's answer was to build highways and encourage trucking. It worked. Trucks started to carry the freight that trains once carried and the arrogant railroads were battered, bruised and eventually defeated. Today, people sit in reminiscent awe as the occasional train rolls through town and consider a train trip anywhere as a jaunt, an excursion, not a way of life.

Everything worked out to the better, right?

Sure, if you think it's OK for the United States to be dangerously dependent on foreign oil to fuel its commerce; if you think the desperation for oil is worth destroying the Gulf of Mexico's fragile wetlands and New Orleans' damaged economy; and if you think the multiple billions, probably trillions of dollars that will need to be spent to rebuild the nation's highway infrastructure is money well spent.

Government intervention a good idea?It didn't have to come to this. Had the railroad barons been just a tad less arrogant and a little more appeasing, there would have been no public outcry for government intervention. Of course there was a need for competition and trucks would have started rolling anyway, but those miles and miles of steel tracks that have been removed and abandoned could today better serve society than another eight-lane superhighway.

Despite the common perception, the government can't and won't act without public support; it's the best way to not get reelected, if not the most reasonable thing to do. On the other hand, when the public is being slighted the government will step in and interfere.

A little self-governance, a little compromise and a lot of common sense would seem to be a tonic to settle an upset public. Maybe everyone should try that for a change.