Whose Rules?

Date: 15 Jan 2000 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Whose Rules?
By David Morris
January 2000

The strongest argument in favor of globalization is its apparent inevitability. And in certain respects, it is inevitable. Even now, at the very beginning of the information age, distance has begun to lose its meaning. In many places, it is now cheaper to make a long distance call than a local call.

But a globalization of all things is not inevitable. It is not inevitable that goods will circle the globe. It is not inevitable that a small group of individuals will have the power to affect, directly and substantially, the lives of millions of people for the purpose of private gain. It is not inevitable that government will become ever more remote from its citizens.

Technological and scientific change is unstoppable. But the structure and scale of societies and economies depend to a significant degree on the rules we make. The World Trade Organization ministerial summit in Seattle was called to develop trade rules on a planetary scale. Unfortunately, the single-minded purpose is to accelerate the movement of all resources. As a result, the rules they propose would move us even further in the direction of absentee ownership, long distribution lines, a diminished role for citizenship, and concentrated power.

To most of us, however, distance is not a measure of progress but of failure. We prefer community, democracy, diversity, autonomy, and sustainability. What rules would we enact if these were the values that guided policymaking?

Answering this question is not an academic exercise; these rules are being redesigned at virtually every level from the international to the national to the local. We need to become involved in these deliberations.

Writing the rules with the goal of creating strong communities and nurturing informed and active citizens and consumers will not be easy. The forces opposing such an initiative are formidable. The battles will be hard-fought. But they are not unwinnable.

Consider the instructive case of genetic engineering. Just 12 months ago, the dominance of genetically engineered crops was considered inevitable, an unstoppable result of technological innovation and corporate power. By 1999, only five years after genetically engineered crops were first introduced, they accounted for more than a third of all crops planted in the United States. Monsanto predicted that virtually all crops would soon be genetically engineered.

The conventional wisdom proved wrong. Today, genetically engineered crops are on the defensive, a result of a massive rebellion by a coalition of consumers, environmentalists, and farmers. In the summer of 1999, for the first time, farmers received a premium price for non-genetically engineered crops. Policy makers are now beginning to do what they should have done in the first place . sit down with citizens to assess the role of genetic engineering in light of important environmental and social goals.

The successes in the struggle against uncontrolled and unthinking genetic engineering should embolden us to become involved in other sectors. For example, right now, in city councils, state legislatures, and Congress, elected officials are rewriting the rules that will determine the future shape, scale, and ownership of our $250 billion electric power system, the nation. s third largest industry after health care and automobiles.

Will we simply be consumers of electricity, or will we become owners as well? Will the electricity be generated by a few hundred large central power plants or by millions of household-sized power plants? Will we rely on coal or on sunlight for our energy? These are some of the fundamental questions being addressed.

We make the rules and the rules make us. In the early 1980s, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) abandoned the Fairness Doctrine, a 30-year-old requirement that radio broadcasters allow opposing viewpoints to be heard. That decision gave birth to the now ubiquitous partisan talk show. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act lifted the cap on the number of radio stations a single business could own. In the next three years, almost one half of all radio stations in the country were bought, sold or merged.

In 1978, the FCC banned all low-power radio stations. But microradio refused to die. Pirate stations began broadcasting, and by 1998 the FCC had received 13,000 inquiries about starting such stations. In 1999, the FCC began writing the rules for low-power radio. The outcome will decide the ownership structure and programming content and community orientation of thousands of new stations.

We make the rules and the rules make us. At the WTO meeting in Seattle, the primary struggle is against policies that pre-empt the right of citizens at the local, state, and national level to fashion rules appropriate to their own values. The same struggle is occurring within our countries.

The US government, for example, in 1999 stripped state and local governments from taxing internet or mail order sales, thereby giving remote businesses a 5 percent to 8 percent price advantage compared to local businesses. Many state governments have denied their communities the right to regulate industrial hog operations, even when these present not only a threat to their social and economic fabric, but to their physical health as well.

Portland, Oregon . as a condition for allowing AT&T to provide high-speed internet service through its newly acquired cable subsidiary, TCI . required the company to allow customers to choose any internet service provider without having to pay a premium to AT&T’s own internet provider. FCC Chairman William Kennard predicted “there would be chaos” and invited industry to petition the FCC to pre-empt local authority in this area.

In return for relinquishing authority over our own affairs, free traders promise us lower prices, better services, and improved technology. There is little if any evidence that this promise will be kept. Indeed, empirical evidence supports our intuitive belief that a better future will come from shortening the distance between those who make the decisions and those who feel the impact of those decisions, not from lengthening it.

Two hundred years ago Benjamin Franklin observed, “The person who would trade independence for security usually deserves to end up with neither.” We would do well to heed that sage advice.

This article originally appeared in Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.