Monday, December 12, 2005

George Will: An Attractive Man, But Not All That Bright

by Tom Bozzo

The Washington Post's Technorati trackback feature shows a variety of mostly conservatives and conservatarians swooning over George F. Will's column decrying the "entitlement" to digital TV just passed by the Republican-led Congress.

Conventional analog TV broadcasting is to end in the spring of 2009. This will free up the electromagnetic spectrum for other uses, which is a revenue-producing development. It affects people like me who choose not to spend money on cable TV but can afford it, as well as many people who don't have the choice. There are also, in all likelihood, a lot of secondary sets that aren't hooked up to cable or satellite receivers in households that use those services. All together, some tens of millions of people will at least be inconvenienced by the switchover.

Remedying this is "filigree on the welfare state" according to Will. Granted, his "No Couch Potato Left Behind" characterization of the situation is catchy, though it mainly illustrates Kramer's view that Will is attractive but not all that bright.

Matthew Yglesias has a reasonably solid takedown at Tapped, pointing out that the broadcasters themselves would like to hold onto the analog TV spectrum, so the digital receiver give-away isn't really economically inefficient in that it cuts through the main sources of political opposition and makes the large payoff to the government available as a practical matter. This cuts at Will's main economic point (derived from Heritage Foundation article that he references):
Because the government may get $10 billion from one transaction, taxpayers are unburdened by government's giving away $3 billion with another transaction. Such denial that money is fungible fuels the welfare state's expansion.
In this case, appealing to the "fungibility" of money is vacuous; it's the causality between the two transactions that's important as Yglesias recognizes. What, otherwise, is the likelihood of lawmakers of either party voting to take TV away from 45 million people, even if those people don't tend to give lots of money to the Republican party?

Still, Yglesias doesn't quite do justice to everything that's wrong with Will's column.

First, it's damned cheeky for a guy whose market value as a print pundit has been massively increased by his TV punditry, mainly for a broadcast network that's in turn been massively subsidized through grants of free analog broadcast spectrum, to suggest that without TV people who'd be left out in the metaphorical cold might engage in "such eccentric alternative pastimes as conversation and reading." As is often the case, crude moralism is pseudo-libertarianism's backhanded slap when necessary. Where, you might reasonably ask, is the disapprobation for the upper-middle class 500-channel couch potatoes?

Second, I can't believe that no conservatarian has recognized that forcing the digital TV transition would amount to a TV tax. The horror! Will writes:
...the digitally deprived could pursue happiness by buying a new television set, all of which will be digital-capable by March 2007. Today a digital-capable set with a flat-screen display can be purchased from -- liberals, please pardon the mention of your Great Satan -- Wal-Mart for less than $460.
For those of us eccentrics who have managed to be satisfied with analog broadcast TV, buying the digital TV would involve a twist of the arm from the state, if little lingering harm. It's acute millionaire pundit disease to suggest that everyone can just pay $460 or so for a new TV without consequence, though. Will's invocation of low TV prices at Wal-Mart is off-base, too. While small HDTV "monitors" are available in the $500 price range, those sets require set-top boxes to receive digital broadcast signals. Taking that shopping trip now would solve the problem not in the least. In fact, partly due to wrangling over some broadcast standards issues, lots of the expensive HDTVs in the world themselves lack digital tuners, so it's disingenuous of Will to suggest that since "the transition to digital has been underway for almost a decade" the holdouts are Luddites who deserve the forced upgrade. (Maybe Will's technical editor and John Tierney's drink together.)

Third, and not least, Will's founding premise that the U.S. "is suffering an entitlement glut," while a purely normative statement, is nevertheless highly questionable. Or, at least, people probably think they're entitled to a lot more than they actually are. The big bucks are spent on the likes of retirement income security, health care for the poor and elderly, primary and secondary education, unemployment insurance, and food for the poor. (*) Is eating, reading, and trying to keep people out of the poor house the slippery slope to a Lexus in every garage? C'mon.

(*) Tax expenditures such as the mortage interest deduction disproportionately benefit the well-to-do and are at least de facto entitlements. Additionally, Federal civilian and military employee benefits are formally entitlements, but are better considered compensation costs for federal employees.
Will is generally brilliant, but you've maanged to poke enough holes in this column that it really appears he doesn't know what he's talking about this week.
Thanks, Robert. Unfortunately for Will, persuasive writing can't overcome the conceptual defects of the Heritage Foundation source material in this case.
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