Unlike the previous reviewer, I'm going to start out with the legitimate problems that I think this program is designed to address.
First, we live in a society where most people (unless part of an insular group like the Amish) really need some form of telecommunication services to participate in our democratic system and capitalist economy. This is all the more necessary since mail quarantines were instituted for mail sent to congressmen following the 2001 anthrax attacks. Indeed telephone (and basic internet) service are becoming as important to getting a job as a physical address was in the distant past. More importantly, these services are critical in obtaining emergency services (such as the fire or police department) in an emergency.
The decline in payphones makes this even more important.
Unfortunately, starting under Clinton (and continuing, even accelerating under Bush and now Obama), the government shifted away from an strongly pro-free-market position and towards a pro-big-business position. As a result of changes in policy where common carriers are no longer required to lease lines to competitors at reasonable costs, and the like, most people in this country have very few real options for telephone and internet service (usually something along the lines of Comcast or some baby bell or another). So we have the dilemma that we either cut such individuals out of the job market and political process or we come up with some sort of program to give them a very basic level of service. Given that the cell service market is quite a bit more competitive than the land line market, I suppose today this makes some sense.
At the same time, this strikes me as putting a bandaid over an infected abscess. The big problem (that government has moved from a pro-free-market approach from Ford through Reagan/Bush to a pro-big-business approach (Clinton, Bush, Obama) is left unresolved and covered up. The problems are then out of sight and out of mind. Nearly every approach since Clinton has been to regulate the businesses that offer services by establishing what they must not do, rather than trying to separate the natural monopolies (which would be heavily regulated) from a competitive marketplace for services. A good example of the previous strategy was that favoring the emergence of Worldcom in competition to AT&T under Reagan, and which ended with AT&T deciding to break themselves up in order to avoid anti-monopoly policies and past judgements.
We will only get these problems solved if everyone is willing to feel a little less entitled to stuff. The poor need to have the minimum which will allow them to participate in our economic and political system, but we should try to ensure that this is an uncomfortable minimum so that there is more incentive to better one's own condition. But the large companies should not feel entitled to a monopoly (or even part of a duopoly) on providing service to an area. The government must have the courage to stand up to the local loop providers the way the Reagan administration stood up to AT&T in the 1980's.
Instead, I think we'd be better off with a requirement that phone companies offer competitors an ability to lease their lines at a rate of no more than 10% above cost, and that government money would be available to subsidize low income local telephone access over a local loop (of copper). I'd also suggest government subsidization for an internet connection of up to 64kbps (basically a little faster than a standard modem), and the provider would generally have freedom as to how to provide such a connection (64kbps is a DS0 line). Pushing for this sort of thing would provide competitors with access to a market, and keep unemployed individuals in the job market, while driving costs down for the rest of us.
But there is another problem too that must be addressed and for this I do not have an answer. Already, companies like Walmart use programs like Medicaid as essentially a form of corporate welfare. They hire low-wage workers, make them pay a significant cost for health insurance, and when they don't (and instead enroll in Medicaid), they pocket their portion of the cost. If you put people on foodstamps and medicaid and some companies exploit these for profit, then the same will happen to this program. Drawing a line between someone who may be getting a little bit of money as an occasional day laborer while working for a real job and someone who managed to get one at Walmart is not easy. Hence these programs may indeed reduce what a "liveable wage" is, boosting corporate profits and leaving the rest of us with the tab. Ultimately this last question, however, is one that needs more discussion.
I first heard about "Obama phones" a few months ago when a man provided me his cell phone number and referred to his phone as an Obamaphone. I pressed him for details and he stated he simply had to fill out a form when he applied for food stamps and he was given a phone along with free minutes every month. He also stated that he could purchase more minutes and would be given an equal number of free minutes for any amount he paid for. I wasn't sure if he was pulling my … more
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