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'Economism' and the Anti-Net Neutrality Argument

A great book to hopefully invite other voices to our conversation on the future of the internet.

December 19, 2017
 
 

Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality by James Kwak

Published in January of 2017.

One reason that I have not written anything about net neutrality is that I haven’t felt that I could add much to the discussion.  This does not seem to be an issue where there is a great deal of disagreement among academics, technologists, or academic technologists.  The last thing we need is yet more piling on to our shared conventional wisdom.

I’ve yet to hear from someone who relies on digital platforms to conduct their teaching or research who is against net neutrality.  Nobody in my world of digital learning seems to think that the FCC repeal of the net neutrality rules is anything but a terrible idea.

Dean Dad’s post on Net Neutrality and Online Teaching, and the Tressie McMillan Cottom's piece Online Education After The End of Net Neutralitynicely encapsulate and represent the concerns of most higher ed people.  Another good piece is Digital Life in the Slow Lane by Joseph South and Eden Dahlstrom.

What I want is to have my pro net neutrality views challenged.

I’d like to read a good argument from a higher ed and digital learning perspective as to why the FCC repeal of net neutrality makes any sense.

Can you step up?

All of this brings me James Kwak’s superbly argued book Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality.

This is the book that I was reading when the Federal Communications Commission voted to overturn the net neutrality regulations.  The arguments that Chairman Ajit Pai and the other Republicans on the Commission used to justify their votes were straight out of Econ 101.  These arguments, as Kwak persuasively demonstrates, the result of beginning and ending one’s view of the workings of society at the level of introductory economics.

This Econ 101 view, what Kwak labels the ideology of Economism, can be found in Pai’s written justification to end neutrality.  I’ll share some relevant quotes, but the full text is worth reading:

"The Internet is the greatest free-market innovation in history.”

"What is responsible for the phenomenal development of the Internet?  It certainly wasn't heavy-handed government regulation.”

"And this light-touch approach was good for consumers, too.  In a free market full of permissionless innovation, online services blossomed.  Within a generation, we've gone from email as the killer app to high-definition video streaming.  Entrepreneurs and innovators guided the Internet far better than the clumsy hand of government ever could have.”

“We need to empower all Americans with digital opportunity, not deny them the benefits of greater access and competition.”

"Simply put, by returning to the light-touch Title I framework, we are helping consumers and promoting competition.”

"What I am saying is that the government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers in the Internet economy.  We should have a level playing field and let consumers decide who prevails.”

It is striking how closely Pai’s justifications for ending net neutrality align with basic Econ 101 thinking.  The best way to allocate resources is the market.  Competition is always good.  The impact of government on the economy is always bad.  Regulations kills innovation.

This is not at all an argument about how the actual internet was developed, or how it is run today.  This is more a belief system of how the world works, grafted on to the specific circumstance of how the internet should work.

The reason that I think Economism is a must read is that it is a book that helps us to understand the roots of ideological beliefs that translate into policy and political beliefs.  My suspicion is that no technical argument about the pros and cons of net neutrality would ever sway Commissioner Pai, and others who are against net neutrality.  This is an issue about beliefs, not about evidence or arguments.

Placing the anti net-neutrality camp within the framework of Kwak’s Economism makes me even more curious to hear your arguments.  Am I replacing one blind spot - the one that is unable to see why getting net neutrality is a good idea - with another?

What is the sociological equivalent of Economism?

Is there a sophisticated argument to be made against net neutrality?  One that recognizes the limitations of markets and of an anti-government stance, but yet still makes a positive argument to eliminate the regulations on internet service providers?

Economism is an extraordinary good book.  You need not be interested in net neutrality (although you are) to prioritize this book on your must-read list.

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