December 8, 2005
A Not So Novel Way to Spend $3 Billion
WASHINGTON -- Feeling,
evidently, flush with (other people's) cash, the Senate has concocted
a novel way to spend $3 billion: Create a new entitlement. The
Senate has passed -- and so has the House, with differences --
an entitlement to digital television.
If this filigree
on the welfare state becomes law, everyone who owns old analog
television sets -- everyone from your Aunt Emma in her wee apartment
to the millionaire in the neighborhood McMansion who has such
sets in the maid's room and the guest house -- will get subsidies
to pay for making those sets capable of receiving digital signals.
If you think America
is suffering an entitlement glut, you may have just hurled the
newspaper across the room. Pick it up and read on, because this
story illustrates the timeless truth that no matter how deeply
you distrust the government's judgment, you are too trusting.
Here, as explained by James L. Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation,
is the crisis du jour: The nation is making a slow transition
from analog to digital television broadcasting.
Why is this a crisis?
Because, although programming currently is broadcast in both modes,
by April 2009 broadcasters must end analog transmissions and the
government will have auctioned the analog frequencies for various
telecommunications purposes. For the vast majority of Americans,
April 2009 will mean ... absolutely nothing. Nationwide, 85 percent
of all television households (and 63 percent of households below
the poverty line) already have cable or satellite service.
What will become
of households that do not? Leaving aside such eccentric alternative
pastimes as conversation and reading, 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. But compassionate conservatism has a government
response to the crisis.
although it is difficult to do so, that Republicans control Congress.
And today's up-to-date conservatism does not stand idly by expecting
people to actually pursue happiness on their own. Hence
the new entitlement from Congress to help all Americans acquire
converter boxes to put on top of old analog sets, making the sets
able to receive digital programming. All Americans -- rich and
poor; it is uncompassionate to discriminate on the basis of money
when dispersing money -- will be equally entitled to the help.
The $990 million
House version of this entitlement -- call it ``No Couch Potato
Left Behind'' -- is (relatively) parsimonious: Consumers would
get vouchers worth only $40, and would be restricted to a measly
two vouchers per household. The Senate's more spacious entitlement
would pay for most of the cost -- $50 to $60 -- of the converter
boxes. But there is Republican rigor in this: Consumers would
be required to pay $10. That is the conservatism in compassionate
hardhearted will, in their cheeseparing small-mindedness, ask:
Given that the transition to digital has been under way for almost
a decade, why should those who have adjusted be compelled to pay
money to those who have chosen not to adjust? And conservatives
who have not yet attended compassion re-education camps will ask:
Why does the legislation make even homes with cable or digital
services eligible for subsidies to pay for converter boxes
for old analog sets -- which may be worth less than the government's
cost for the boxes?
Gattuso says defenders
of this entitlement argue that taxpayers will not be burdened
by its costs because the government's sale of the analog frequencies
will yield perhaps $10 billion. Think about that: Because the
government may get $10 billion from one transaction, taxpayers
are unburdened by government giving away $3 billion with another
transaction. Such denial that money is fungible fuels the welfare
What oil is to Saudi
Arabia -- a defining abundance -- cognitive dissonance is to America.
Americans are currently in a Founding Fathers literary festival.
They are making best-sellers out of many biographies of the statesmen
who formulated America's philosophy of individualism and self-reliance,
and who embodied that philosophy -- or thought they did -- in
a constitutional architecture of limited government. Yet Americans
have such an entitlement mentality, they seem to think that every
pleasure -- e.g., digital television -- should be a collective
right, meaning a federally funded entitlement. Clearly, Americans'
civic religion of reverence for the Founders is, like most religions,
more avowed than constraining.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group