Friday, August 28, 2009

Government subsidy, public decisions?

In a world where cheap, infinite and perfect copies are now the norm in many creative realms, old laws about limiting access – protecting copyrights, we called them – bear scant relation to reality. The world has out run the law.

Robert Penn Warren has Boss Stark explain this is All The King's Men, generally acclaimed the best political novel in American literature:

[The law] is like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks in the bed and a cold night. There ain't ever enough blanket to cover the case, no matter how much pulling and hauling, and somebody is always going to nigh catch pneumonia. Hell, the law is like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy, but it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone's to the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind...'"

Thus did The Boss commend the virtues of unmitigated pragmatism, the imperative of getting things done, of doing good, and let the law stretch out to match that.

Gone with the day of scarce and limited copies is the monopoly capitalism that fueled American journalism since World War II. Today finds us in between that passing era and an uncertain future, and serious citizens are discussing all kinds of ways to bridge the gap.

Often these involve calls for government subsidy, philanthropy, permission for collusion and much more. Most, in my view, are freighted with problems.

But government inevitably puts its thumb on the scale in all kinds of situations. It's naive or disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Ben Franklin (as Tim Rutten paraenthetically reminded us last week) favored postal subsidies for transmission of news. 230 years later,
Bush administration tax and energy policies subsidized the manufacture and sale of gas-guzzling SUVs. Tax policy decides what kind of non-profit contributions donors can write off, thereby directed untold millions away from public treasury and into largely unaccountable charities.

So what? Well, I mention all that to put the question of government policy on the table for legitimate discussion, and to suggest one avenue I haven't heard mentioned much: vouchers.

There's a short discussion of this idea on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog. Here is the nut graph:

[in] 2003, as the music industry was disintegrating, lefty economist Dean Baker floated an idea for government funding of journalists, artists and other creative workers that would keep media purse strings out of government hands. Instead, every adult in the country would get a transferable $100 “artistic freedom voucher” once a year, which could be cashed in only by someone putting new intellectual property — anything from databases to photos to drum solos — into the public domain.

Believe in your local transit blog? Send them some free money, courtesy Uncle Sam. Want to stick it to Keith Olbermann? Mail your voucher to Bill O’Reilly.

Asked what he'd do if he had a $100 voucher, Baker wasn't sure – but thought he might donate it to advance jazz music.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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