Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Huckabee - reaping what you sow

Very good post from Arianna Huffington of the cleverly-named HuffingtonPost.com (http://www.alternet.org/election08/71030/?page=entire) discussing the discomfort that the Republican base has with the success of Mike Huckabee. Huffington quite accurately points out that the "power brokers" of the Republican party are generally wealthy business interests, with little in common with the evangelical right. The Republicans, for the last two or three decades, have figured out how to galvanize the evangelical right with certain hot-button issues at election time. It's worked (ask the current President about the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage he went on and on about in 2004), and the GOP has consistently failed to deliver.

But they've created the movement, and now the movement may be taking over the Republican party. Much like how the Democrats were hijacked by the Jesse Jackson wing of the party in the 70's and 80's, it's possible we could see the GOP beholden to its' hard-right base for the next decade or so. Surely no one thinks that a guy like Rudy Giuliani is going to be the Bill Clinton of his party.

My favorite little snippet of the post is this, but that's just schadenfreude on my part:

"Over at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan frets that the Republican Party of today wouldn't like Ronald Reagan much now that "faith has been heightened as a determining factor in how to vote," and says that voters in Iowa "may be deciding if Republicans are becoming a different kind of party."

If? If??"

So, it's interesting to watch. While I am all for a guy who makes a Chuck Norris commercial (truly brilliant, check it out on Huckabee's website), it would be an interesting election to be certain if Huckabee wins the GOP nomination.

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With Mike Huckabee's continuing surge, the Republican Party now has an Iowa front-runner whose religious beliefs are virtually identical to those of George Bush. He's anti-choice, born-again, against gay-marriage, and gets political advice directly from God.

So why is the Republican establishment suddenly in a state of near-apoplexy about Mike Huckabee? Shouldn't they be happy? They've been cultivating evangelicals and fundamentalists for 30 years. Now they finally have a candidate who's truly part of the movement. So what's the problem?

Actually, that is the problem. The evangelical crowd was fine when it was just a resource to be cynically exploited every few years in demagogic anti-gay get-out-the-vote campaigns. But now the holy-rolling monster the GOP's Dr. Frankensteins have created has thrown off the shackles, fled the lab, and is currently leading in Iowa. And the party doesn't know what to do.

It's actually fun to watch the consternation. Ross Douthat has dubbed this feeling "Huckenfreude," which he defines as "pleasure derived from the outrage of prominent conservative pundits over the rising poll numbers of Mike Huckabee."

And there is certainly no shortage of outrage among hyperventilating conservative columnists across the country. The National Review's Rich Lowry has coined a neologism of his own: "Huckacide." This is when a national party commits suicide by nominating an "under-vetted former governor who is manifestly unprepared to be president of the United States."

Yeah, that would certainly be crazy, wouldn't it? Makes you wonder where these people have been for the last seven years.

Over at the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer is wringing his hands about an "overdose of public piety," "scriptural literalism," and how the 2008 campaign is "knee-deep in religion."

At the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes worries about the fact that Huckabee "told a producer for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network that his religious background made him most qualified to lead the war on terror," and that he "seems to believe the best foreign policy is one guided by the Golden Rule." Scoffing at the Golden Rule? What's next, attacking the Boy Scout Oath? And what it is about Huckabee's name that inspires a whole new lexicon? The Weekly Standard's headline writers couldn't resist, dubbing his perceived foreign policy shortcomings "The Perils of Huckaplomacy."

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan frets that the Republican Party of today wouldn't like Ronald Reagan much now that "faith has been heightened as a determining factor in how to vote," and says that voters in Iowa "may be deciding if Republicans are becoming a different kind of party."

If? If??

Turns out that when you define your party a certain way for a two or three decades, people actually start to believe it, and that definition can, in fact, become your party.

According to Andrew Sullivan, "it is certainly too late for fellow-traveling Christianists like Lowry and Krauthammer to start whining now. This is their party. And they asked for every last bit of it."

The Republican establishment is tying itself in knots trying to land on a publicly acceptable rationale for their Huckabhorrence (I told you, it's irresistible). Some criticize his "fair tax" plan -- but since when have nutty economic plans ever disqualified a Republican presidential candidate?

No, the real reason is class. As Kevin Drum puts it, "mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They're happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn't care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal."

As Steve Benen writes at TPM, "The Republican Party's religious right base is supposed to be seen, not heard. Candidates are supposed to pander to this crowd, not actually come from this crowd."

They want their base to be a kind of electoral cicada: wake up every four years, vote, and then go underground and shut-up.

Will Huckabee win the nomination? No one knows. But win or lose, I can't see this genie going back in the bottle. One danger for the Huckabee haters is that right wing social positions aren't the only thing they've been nurturing for 30 years -- there's also this sense of aggrieved, martyred hatred of "the elites." Of course, it's usually completely manufactured. But this time, there really is a group looking down its nose at the evangelicals -- and it's not godless liberals. It's the supporters of Romney, McCain, Thompson and Giuliani. So what's going to happen when evangelicals realize this and tap into the hatred of "the elites" the GOP establishment has been whipping up in them for three decades?

Mark Kleiman points out that Huckabee is the only non-millionaire among the serious GOP contenders, and the only one who doesn't court what Kevin Drum calls the "money-cons" -- those Republicans for whom globalization is the only true religion.

Republicans have been running on a faux populist/religiously conservative platform ever since Richard Nixon. It was refined and heightened by Lee Atwater and again by Karl Rove. And now that they have a rising candidate who truly represents that platform, the movers and shakers of the party are doing all they can to kneecap him.

But as the Good Book says: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Winning and losing

Great article by Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/14/AR2007121402212.html?wpisrc=newsletter) describing how the current President's rash of vetoes has far less to do with the policies themselves, and far more to do with scoring political points and making life hell for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Not that being Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid wasn't hell enough.

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Bush's Budget Wins May Cost Him
Victories Over Democrats Could Increase Debt and Impede His Own Agenda

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007; Page A01

As Congress stumbles toward Christmas, President Bush is scoring victory after victory over his Democratic adversaries. He has beaten back domestic spending increases, thwarted an expansion of children's health insurance coverage, defeated tax hikes, won funding for the war in Iraq and pushed Democrats toward shattering their pledge not to add to the federal deficit with new tax cuts or rises in mandatory spending.

But the cost of those wins could be high, both for the federal debt and for the president's own priorities.

Even some Republicans bristle at the president's inflexibility. Bush has pledged never to sign bills with tax increases, even tax increases that he once supported.

"I see the president trying to play catch-up in two years for not vetoing anything in the first six years, and probably regretting that he treated the Republican Congress with softer gloves than he did a Democrat Congress," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the conservative ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "He's kind of waking up to the necessity of having a certain policy that ought to be consistently followed, even if it's irrational."

White House officials -- and virtually every other Republican in Congress -- are not about to apologize. "The Democrats are learning this isn't the early 1970s, when the Republican Party was Gerald Ford and 140 of his friends," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "There are 201 of us, and we will be heard."

In his first six years in office, Bush accepted domestic discretionary spending increases from Republican-controlled Congresses that averaged 7 percent a year, said Brian Riedl, a conservative budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation. In his showdown with the current Democratic Congress, the president is insisting on spending growth of 4 percent at most.

But as he stood his ground, first against $22 billion in additional domestic spending, then against $11 billion, Bush steadfastly opposed Democratic efforts to raise taxes to recoup the cost of a $50 billion measure that would stave off the growth of the alternative minimum tax (AMT). The parallel tax system was created in 1969 to ensure that a few rich Americans could not avoid paying taxes altogether, but because it was not indexed to inflation, it now threatens more than 20 million upper-middle-income households.

If, as expected, Congress passes a bill without making up the lost revenue, the cost to the Treasury would swamp the savings from Bush's spending fight.

The president also has taken to the White House's bully pulpit week after week to demand nearly $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, without tax increases or spending cuts. If the president prevails on all three fronts, he will end up adding about $239 billion to the federal deficit this fiscal year.

"I have difficulty seeing how $11 billion or $22 billion in discretionary spending on the domestic side of the equation is so fiscally irresponsible when juxtaposed against these major AMT provisions of $50 billion, or certainly against the $70-plus billion they want for the global war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan," said G. William Hoagland, a Republican budget adviser to former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (Tenn.). "It doesn't pass the sensible man's test."

As Democrats shuffle funds to meet Bush's bottom line, the White House also is likely to lose half of the $3 billion the president requested for his Millennium Challenge Corp., an effort to increase development assistance to some poor nations. Bush's program to resume the reprocessing of nuclear waste will be cut dramatically. A $579 million increase for math and science instruction under the No Child Left Behind initiative will be cut, and the Reading First program will be reduced, Democratic aides said Friday.

Bush's victory against much of the Democrats' energy bill also came at a price. A comprehensive bill will be signed into law, but the president defeated $21 billion in revenue increases that would have paid for tax incentives to support renewable energy, conservation and other programs that he has vocally supported.

"It's ridiculous," Grassley fumed. "He has compromised his own position."

The biggest revenue-raiser would have done away with a tax incentive that the five largest oil companies have enjoyed for three years. That break came about as Congress was considering tax incentives to spur manufacturing exports; the oil companies -- among the largest importers in the country -- successfully lobbied to be declared manufacturers, making them eligible for a new tax break.

At the time, Bush opposed more tax incentives. "I will tell you, with $55 oil, we don't need incentives to oil and gas companies to explore," he told a gathering of newspaper editors. "There are plenty of incentives." Grassley said Bush personally reiterated that position to him in 2006, during a private White House session on taxes.

This time around, Bush and Republican leaders declared that a repeal of such incentives would amount to a "massive" tax increase.

"What is clear is that raising taxes on oil producers will not lower the price of gasoline," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "And raising the price of gasoline is not what Americans need today. . . . We do not need a tax increase."

Bush's aversion to any tax increase -- no matter the size or the target -- has led directly to the death of a number of measures. Bush opposed a Democratic plan to pay for the AMT "patch" largely by forcing wealthy managers of hedge and private-equity funds to pay ordinary income tax rates on their earnings. Currently that income is classified as capital gains and taxed at 15 percent.

When that measure fell to a filibuster, House Democrats tried again, this time paying for the AMT bill by preventing hedge fund managers from putting compensation in offshore tax havens. Again, Bush opposed it.

Fratto called such proposals "very typical of tax policy based on populism and class warfare, rather than sound economic policy."

Democrats said Bush was not nearly so averse in the past to using tax increases to deal with losses from the AMT. In 2005, he empaneled a tax reform commission, entrusting it to, among other things, repeal the AMT without costing the Treasury any revenue.

That would have meant eliminating a tax that brings in $1 trillion over 10 years and making up the lost revenue with tax increases somewhere, said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When right-wingers love Darwinism

Fascinating article by Sean Gonsalves of AlterNet (http://www.alternet.org/stories/70226/) making a point I'm disappointed I didn't think of myself. Most hard-right Christians hate the theory of evolution, believing it to be unholy and an assault on God. But most hard-right Christians are also die-hard believers in the free market. By definition, the free market is a "survival of the fittest" philosophy. So how, pray tell, can someone believe biologically that Darwinism is evil, and socially believe Darwinism is wonderful?

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In my neck of the woods -- actually Woods Hole in Falmouth, Mass. to be exact -- a new front in the "Culture War" has opened up.

A federal lawsuit has been filed against a biologist at the world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution by a zebra fish researcher named Nathaniel Abraham, alleging his civil rights were violated when he was fired because his belief in creationism.

The same day that story broke in the Cape Cod Times, the Associated Press had a story about how anti-evolutionists have come up with a new strategy in the battle against the unifying principle of the biological sciences.

The AP reported: "arguments for inserting skepticism, rather than religious concepts, into evolution lessons emerged after a federal court ruling nearly two years ago struck down the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes in Dover, Pa., said Michael Ruse, the director of Florida State University's program on the history and philosophy of science."

Ruse calls it "Strategy No. 4." What were the first three strategies? Strategy No. 1: Prohibit teaching it. The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial put an end to that strategy.

Strategy No. 2: Get creationism taught in schools -- the literal biblical account of creation -- as an alternative to the "theory" of evolution. But courts rejected that strategy in the 1980s, Ruse said.

Strategy No. 3: Promote "Intelligent Design (ID)" -- the notion that "the universe's order and complexity is so great that science alone cannot explain it."

That strategy hit the legal wall in Dover, Penn., where a judge ruled that ID was religion-in-drag, pretending to be science, which meant teaching it in public schools constituted a violation of the separation of church and state.

And that brings us to Strategy No. 4: "Ruse described it as presenting evolution as an 'iffy hypothesis' instead of what it really is -- a scientific theory 'that's accepted like the Earth goes around the sun.'"

The new strategy seems to be losing steam too. "A suburban Atlanta school board abandoned its effort to put stickers in high-school science books saying that evolution is 'a theory, not a fact,' and South Carolina's Board of Education rejected a proposal to require students to 'critically analyze' evolution."

I don't know what strategy our zebra fish creationist is employing but I do know that in the "culture wars," as our conservative brethren call it, the teaching of evolution is considered nothing less than a satanic assault on the image of God.

I confess my heresy: like the Jesuit theologian/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard did 50 odd years ago, I'm a believer whose made his peace with evolution. But then, I've never understood why science and faith are discussed as if they're mutually exclusive. Folks who think evolution is an inherently atheist argument or those who think evolution disproves the existence of God are people with little imagination.

The evolution vs. creationism debate may be an unavoidable political fight but much more relevant and revealing is what many evolution-believing secular conservatives and evolution-denying religious conservatives have in common: a belief in social Darwinism.

A popular misconception is that Darwin coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." Actually, Darwin's thing was "natural selection," which turns out to involve lots of cooperation.

The origin of "survival of the fittest" can be traced to British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who had an illustrious career justifying racism and imperialism with his pseudo-science 50 years after Darwin published The Origin of the Species.

Spencer bastardized Darwin's theory and attempted to apply his misunderstanding of evolution to politics and economics. Thus began a political tradition in this country that has reached its apogee today, in which public policy is seen as a vehicle to prevent the weak from being "parasites" on the "fit."

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich marvels as I do at how "the modern Conservative Movement has embraced social Darwinism with no less fervor than it has condemned Darwinism."

Listen to Spencer's own words: "Society advances where its fittest members are allowed to assert their fitness with the least hindrance."

Listen to any domestic policy debate about crime or education and you'll hear Spencer lurking beneath the surface in arguments justifying everything from war to incarceration rates to wealth disparities.

All that supply-side, Ronald Reagan, freedom stuff about meritocracies and the liberal conspiracy to "dumb-down" America with egalitarianism is social Darwinism -- in defense of the liberty of the "natural aristocracy."

So while science battles evolution-opponents, I'm trying to understand a conservative political species that opposes evolution on religious grounds while supporting social Darwinism on the political and economic grounds.

There's a missing link here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas' pagan history

Usually you can count on at least one version of this story to pop up around this time of year, and Rob Boston of Church and State (http://www.alternet.org/stories/69928/) delivers a good one. All of the faux conservatives bluster about a "War on Christmas" and a bemoaning of the loss Christian-ness of the holiday season belies an ignorance of the pagan history of the Yuletide season. It is amusing to watch "fundamentalist" preachers and "thinkers" bloviate about the loss of symbols that, at their heart, are pagan rites appropriated by the early Christian church.

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It's ironic to hear Religious Right groups portray themselves as the great defenders of Christmas - their spiritual forebears hated the holiday and even banned its celebration.

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay frowned on Christmas revelry, considering the holiday a Roman Catholic affectation. A law in the colony barred anyone from taking the day off work, feasting or engaging in other celebrations on Christmas, under penalty of a five-shilling fine.

The law was repealed in 1681, but Christmas celebrations remained unpopular in New England and other colonies for many years. That did not change after the Revolution, because many Americans viewed Christmas as a Tory custom, a reminder of the expelled British.

Although Christmas became popular in the South as early as the 1830s, other regions were apathetic. Writer Tom Flynn notes in his 1993 book The Trouble with Christmas that Congress did not begin adjourning on Christmas Day until 1856. Public schools in New England were often open on Dec. 25, as were many factories and offices. Many Protestant churches refused to hold services, considering the holiday "popish."

Not until after the Civil War did Christmas begin to seriously affect American cultural and religious life. European immigration increased sharply after the war, and many of the newcomers came from countries with strong Christmas traditions. Germans, Italians, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians and others brought the holiday and many of its features, including Christmas trees and Santa Claus, to America in a big way.

The celebration spread, and in 1870 Christmas was declared a federal holiday by Congress. But practices in the states continued to vary. As late as 1931, Flynn reports, nine states still called for public schools to remain open on Christmas Day.

It might also surprise Religious Right activists to learn that many of the Christmas traditions they defend so vociferously have, at best, a tenuous connection to Christianity.

Several of the holiday's most common features grow out of pre-Christian religions. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia in mid-December, a time of general merriment, feasting and gift exchanges. Slaves were given time off and were even permitted to play dice games in public. During this period, many Romans decorated their homes with evergreens as a reminder that life would persevere through the dark days of winter.

Evergreen trees had long been viewed as a symbol of fertility by Pagan peoples. When winter came and most trees lost their leaves and appeared to die, the evergreen was a reminder that life would endure and that long days, warmer weather and a harvest would come again. Germans were early boosters of the Christmas tree and brought it to America. (The pious legend that Martin Luther decorated the first Christmas tree is not taken seriously by scholars.)

Candles, a necessary item during the dark winter period, were a common Saturnalia gift. Some scholars consider them a precursor to Christmas lights.

Originally celebrated on Dec. 17, the Roman Saturnalia eventually expanded to last an entire week, ending on Dec. 23.

So where did the Dec. 25 date for Christmas come from?

Many scholars believe that date came from another Roman festival, one that became popular around the middle of the third century - the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun.

During this festival, various gods related to the sun in the Roman pantheon were honored. The festival was most popular during the reign of the emperor Aurelian (270-275 A.D.), who attributed his military victories to the sun god and may have wanted to establish a solar deity as supreme in the Roman pantheon. Images of Sol Invictus remained popular and appeared on Roman coinage even during the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.).

There is some evidence that early Christians celebrated the festival alongside Pagans, and that church leaders, seeing these practices under way, simply appropriated the date for the birth of Jesus as Christianity grew and became the dominant religion of the empire throughout the fourth and fifth centuries.

Michael Grant, the late scholar of the ancient world, noted in his 1985 book The Roman Emperors that Dec. 25 was "a bequest of the solar cult to Christianity, converted into Christmas Day."

Legal codes laid down by the emperors Theodosius I and later Justinian made Christianity the state religion and banned Paganism. Church leaders were generally tolerant of people taking old practices and adding a Christian gloss to them. Overt worship of Pagan gods disappeared but the Dec.25 date - and many residual practices associated with the old festival - remained.

As strange as it may seem, when Religious Right legal groups go to court to battle the "War on Christmas," they may really be defending practices historically associated with the worship not of the son of God but the sun in the sky.

Cable ala carte

Interesting article from the New York Times by Joe Nocera (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/business/media/24nocera.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin) about why ala carte cable pricing would be a bad idea. The basic premise is that if you allow ala carte pricing, you'd drive up the prices for most customers, and would choke off some of the smaller channels. A true free-marketer would argue that would be the point, but it is an interesting analysis on what otherwise seems to be a no-brainer idea.

(P.S. - Apologies for my absence the last couple of weeks. I've had a couple of health emergencies in my family which has kept me from keeping up to date. I'll try to keep up in the future)

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Talking Business
Bland Menu if Cable Goes à la Carte

By JOE NOCERA
Published: November 24, 2007
Twice in the last few months, I’ve written columns about the bitter “carriage dispute” between the NFL Network and the nation’s two largest cable companies, Comcast and Time Warner. This column, I swear, is not going to be the third in a series. As annoyed as I remain over the tactics of the National Football League, I’ve had my say.

It is, however, about cable television — and in particular, about a response I kept hearing in the aftermath of those articles. One of my central points was that if the National Football League gained carriage on digital cable for its overpriced network, all cable subscribers would be stuck paying an exorbitant amount for something only a tiny fraction actually want.

Many readers sympathetic to my stance wondered why I hadn’t pursued that argument to its logical end. Don’t just stop with the NFL Network, they wrote. Why should cable subscribers have to pay for any stations they don’t want? Why does the cable industry force us to absorb the cost of the 75 or 100 stations that make up “extended basic” or “extended digital”— which most cable customers subscribe to — in order to see the much smaller universe of stations we truly want to watch?

“What we really need is à la carte cable TV,” wrote a reader named Neal D. Breitenbach. “That way I can buy what I want rather than what someone forces into my TV. I don’t want to pay a dollar for the NFL Network and I don’t want home shopping or Fox News either. Why can’t I pay for what I want and nothing more?”

Another reader, Alan Kemp, wrote: “Comcast’s claim of wanting its basic programming to focus on widely watched programming is nonsense. Over one-half of its basic channels are never watched in my house. I suspect most Comcast subscribers, like me, pay for many channels that they do not want and do not watch.”

À la carte. It sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? Instead of having to accept — and pay for — all the channels bundled by your cable company, you could pick from a menu and pay for only the ones you watch. As Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, nicely put it in a paper he wrote on the subject: “Imagine walking into a department store to buy a pair of slacks and being told by the salesman that in order to buy the pair you like, you would also have to buy a particular shirt, a particular tie and two pairs of socks. Department stores do not attempt such bundling, because the consumer would not stand for it.” Yet that’s what the cable industry does.

À la carte is an idea that has been floating around Washington for years. One of its biggest champions is Gene Kimmelman, an executive at Consumers Union; he sees it as both a way “to create marketplace pressure to reduce prices” and to goose competition.

Another big supporter is the Parents Television Council, an organization dedicated to “protecting children and families from sex, violence and profanity in entertainment,” according to its president, Tim Winter. Although Mr. Winter pays lip service to the “pro-consumer and pro-free market” aspects of à la carte, his real agenda is decency. À la carte, he told me this week, would “allow parents to make the choice of what they want to bring into their homes.” In other words, bring Disney in — and keep MTV out.

And then there’s the most important, and most dogged, supporter of à la carte in Washington. That would be Kevin J. Martin, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. As a regulator, Mr. Martin has zero authority to impose à la carte on the cable industry, but that has not stopped him from pushing for it at every opportunity, including promoting it before Congress.

Mr. Martin has long said that he favors à la carte because it’s pro-consumer, but most people in the cable industry — none of whom will speak on the record, for fear of angering the F.C.C. chairman — are convinced that he favors it for the same reason Mr. Winter does: it will allow parents to keep MTV and its ilk out of their homes. Mr. Martin, who is widely expected to run for office someday in his native North Carolina, has made no secret of the fact that he has “strong concerns” about the amount of sex, violence and profanity on television, as he put it in an interview this year with Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

Yet as appealing as the idea might seem at first glance, there is a reason that Congress has not taken the bait and passed an à la carte law. À la carte would be a consumer disaster. For those of you who yearn for it, this is a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.”



For backers of à la carte, their big moment came in 2004, when Michael K. Powell, a champion of deregulation, was still F.C.C. chairman. Asked by Congress to look into the feasibility of à la carte pricing Mr. Powell had the F.C.C.’s economists work up a study. To the surprise of many — including, I’m told, Mr. Powell himself — the study concluded that à la carte would have the exact opposite effect from what its backers claimed. Instead of reducing prices, à la carte would cause cable bills to rise for most people. And it would cause many channels to go out of business. Mr. Powell turned the study over the Congress, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Soon afterward, Mr. Martin was named chairman of the commission — and one of his first acts was to “redo” the F.C.C. study. Sure enough, the new study attacked the old one, and claimed that à la carte would, indeed, be good for consumers. That, in turn, led to a flurry of condemnations and yet more studies that picked apart Mr. Martin’s study. The F.C.C. chairman was accused of doctoring the numbers to get the result he wanted. The study fiasco so hurt Mr. Martin’s credibility that when an à la carte bill came up in the Senate Commerce Committee last year — a bill Mr. Martin backed — it lost 20-to-2.

But wait: how can it be that à la carte will cause cable prices to rise? If you are subscribing to far fewer channels, doesn’t it therefore follow that your bill will be lower? Strange as this may seem, the answer for most people is no.

True, if you decide to take only one or two channels, à la carte pricing will save you money. But how many people are going to limit themselves to one or two channels? In fact, even if you pick as few as a dozen channels, à la carte will almost surely cost more than your current “exorbitant” cable bill.

The reason is that unmoored from the cable bundle, individual networks would have to charge vastly more money per subscriber. Under the current system, in which cable companies like Comcast pay the networks for carriage — and then pass on the cost to their customers — networks get to charge on the basis of everyone who subscribes to cable television, whether they watch the network or not. The system has the effect of generating more money than a network “deserves” based purely on viewership. Networks also get to charge more for advertising than they would if they were not part of the bundle.

Take, for instance, ESPN, which charges the highest amount of any cable network: $3 per subscriber per month. (I’m borrowing this example from a recent research note by Craig Moffett, the Sanford C. Bernstein cable analyst.) Suppose in an à la carte world, 25 percent of the nation’s cable subscribers take ESPN. If that were the case, the network would have to charge each subscriber not $3, but $12 a month to keep its revenue the same. (And don’t forget: with its $1.1 billion annual bill to the National Football League alone, ESPN is hardly in a position to tolerate declining revenues.)

And that’s one of the most popular channels on cable. What percentage of cable subscribers would take Discovery, or the Food Network, or Oxygen, or Hallmark — or the many, many more obscure networks that you can now find up and down your cable box? Five percent? Ten percent? According to Mr. Moffett’s analysis, if every African- American family in the country subscribed to the Black Entertainment Network, it would still have to raise its fees by 588 percent. He adds, “If just half opted in — still a wildly optimistic scenario — the price would rise by 1,200 percent.”

And that’s just the effect on fees. Networks would have to charge less for advertising because they would lose the casual viewer — a k a the channel flipper. Marketing budgets, on the other hand, would skyrocket, because the channels would have to pay huge sums to persuade people to subscribe. “Identifying everybody who likes the Food Network and getting them to pay for it is hard to do,” says Christopher Yoo, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied cable bundling. One of the nice things about the current system is that once a station gets on extended basic, it can be discovered by viewers — and that wouldn’t happen in an à la carte world.

Indeed, it is quite likely that many of the smaller channels would simply vanish because they wouldn’t have enough subscribers — or couldn’t charge enough to stay in business with the subscribers they did have. It is undoubtedly true, as Mr. Kemp wrote to me, that he never watches most of the cable channels that come into his house. That’s true for most people. But there are also probably one or two small networks he does watch from time to time.

We all have our particular interests and tastes, and under its current business model, cable does a remarkable job of satisfying those interests. Diversity of programming is one of the real benefits that cable has over the old over-the-air broadcasting system. When we pay for the cable bundle we are, in effect, subsidizing those channels for everybody — including ourselves.

The cable industry is far from perfect, of course. Its customer service leaves much to be desired. Its relentless price increases are galling. Because of its monopoly roots, it can still act like a monopolist at times.

But the bundle of networks cable delivers into your home? That’s not one of the problems with the cable industry. That’s one of the blessings.