I’ve never been particularly fond of my cable company, wherever I’ve moved to. Like many, I’m sure, I’ve wondered why cable has gotten so expensive ($80/month or more for TV alone now seems routine) while the service often seems so unaccommodating (the infamous “4-hour window” for appointments is now a punchline). I’ve also wondered why, in almost every place I’ve lived, there are only one or two cable companies offering service, rather than multiple providers competing with one another on the basis of price or quality. Are there massive “economies of scale” in the cable service provider industry, like there are for energy companies or jumbo jet manufacturers, such that it would make sense to have just a handful of really big players in the market? Is cable a “natural” monopoly, the rare case in which a single company dominating an industry actually makes economic sense? I really don’t know.
The good news is that it’s not my job to figure out if there’s too little competition in cable. (That’s good, because I’m pretty busy these days.) In fact, we have multiple federal government offices for this, all charged with the responsibility of blocking inefficient monopolies and protecting the consumer from a lack of competition.
The bad news is that there is no way to know if those offices are in fact acting in the public interest, or if they’ve been influenced by political forces. That’s why I almost lost my egg sandwich last Thursday morning reading this article from the Washington Post, about media giant Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. On the subject of whether or not the merger would be approved by regulators, it reads (emphasis added):
[Comcast’s] executives are veteran negotiators with federal regulators, having won approval of the NBC Universal deal even when it was protested by many lawmakers and consumer interest groups. Its executive vice president… is a longtime Democratic insider who has hosted fundraisers for Obama and the Democratic National Committee. Earlier this week, he was invited with his wife to the White House state dinner for the president of France.
The point of this post is not to heap shame on Comcast’s leadership, the President, or his political party. Regular readers of this blog know that I have never sought to point a finger at specific individuals or political groups. This site is about identifying the moral disease and discussing its cure, not bickering over who’s more deeply infected.
I don’t know whether or not this merger should be approved. But that’s the point: I shouldn’t have to figure it out. I should have the trust in our democratic system that the right people will, in fact, make this judgement on the basis of the welfare of nation, not political backscratching.
This is a widespread problem, bigger than one company, bigger than one industry, bigger than one person, bigger than one party. When political self interest gets in the way of government making and enforcing policies for the common good, we should call it what it is: immoral and corrupt. That this is such a common reality that we barely bat an eyelash when it happens is especially sad.