Rick Santorum's mighty wind.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Aug. 2 2005 1:02 AM

Santorum's Mighty Wind

The AccuWeather Protection Act of 2005.

Trying to shelter AccuWeather from stormy days ahead. Click image to expand.
Trying to shelter AccuWeather from stormy days ahead

I wish Rick Santorum would make up his mind.

On the one hand, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania says that the free market system is godly: It "not only produces wealth but also virtuous people whose worldly enterprise complements the work of the Creator." Big government, I need hardly add, is an unholy lumbering giant that's "overly intrusive and burdensome."


On the other hand, private companies like AccuWeather, which disseminate information collected by the National Weather Service—a big-government agency—cannot hope to compete with the NWS if the NWS itself disseminates that information. The combined might of Adam Smith and the Man Upstairs are simply no match for the brain-dead time-wasters on the federal payroll. Or so Santorum must believe, because he has introduced a bill forbidding the NWS from providing "a product or service ... that is or could be [italics mine] provided by the private sector" unless the secretary of commerce (who oversees NWS) determines that "the private sector is unwilling or unable" to do so, or unless some international treaty requires the NWS to do so. (A thoughtful exception is made for "preparation and issuance of severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property.")

Imagine if Federal Express were to decide it could no longer compete against the U.S. Postal Service and sought legislation to prevent the mailman from delivering packages. Better yet, imagine if Federal Express had emerged only as a result of the federal government stepping in and telling those bullies at the Post Office to stop delivering packages. Absurd, correct? FedEx became a free-market success story not by seeking special favors, but by beating the government at its own game. By contrast, AccuWeather (which happens to reside in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania) would like you to know that it exists only because NWS has, over the past half-century, pursued a "non-competition" policy with the private sector, the idiocy of which apparently only occurred to NWS this past December, when it revoked that policy. The earlier non-competition policy, says an AccuWeather press release, "led to the development of specialized weather services" like, well, AccuWeather. The company became a success story only because the federal government built it a special incubator.

There are two possible responses to AccuWeather's suggestion that competition with NWS would wipe it out.

One possibile response is that it isn't true—that AccuWeather might be mildly inconvenienced by the government's dissemination of weather information, but that consumers will always want AccuWeather's prettier weather maps. If it turned out that the federal government was withholding vital weather information from AccuWeather to such an extent that the company couldn't make its prettier maps, the true free-market solution would be for AccuWeather to start collecting its own damn data—not for AccuWeather to go crying to Santorum for legislative relief.

The other possible response to AccuWeather's whining is that it is true—that the NWS will squash AccuWeather like a bug by providing taxpayers with the weather information that they, ahem, alreadypaid for, instead of leaving it to AccuWeather to charge taxpayers a second time for access to that information. That obviously would be a problem for AccuWeather. But why should the rest of us care?

Santorum has tried to argue that his bill would actually lead to more dissemination of weather information, not less, but of course if that were true in any meaningful sense then AccuWeather and the Commercial Weather Services Association wouldn't be pushing Santorum's bill. What the bill actually says is that the NWS must issue all its data "in real time, and without delay for internal use." This means that the NWS must issue data in raw form that will be incomprehensible to the general public—thereby providing private weather companies with a government-guaranteed opportunity to massage that information into something the public can actually comprehend. That the intended recipient of the NWS's raw data is the private weather industry, rather than the inexpert consumer, is made plain in the bill's very next sentence, which states, "Data, information, guidance, forecasts, and warnings shall be issued ... through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers [italics mine] of products or services." The envisioned "data portals" (whatever they turn out to be) are quite obviously not intended to get all that weather information to you and me.

Some people think the entire weather service should be privatized. I don't happen to agree, but it's an argument you can advance without making a fool of yourself. But Santorum doesn't want to block the NWS from the tedious business of collecting weather data; he wants NWS to collect weather information and then to turn over that information to private companies to disseminate it. It's as if FedEx wanted the post office to gather together in one convenient location all the mail packages people sent, leaving actual delivery to FedEx. That would save FedEx a lot of trouble. But why would the rest of us choose such an arrangement?

Santorum can't have it both ways. If big government really is as inherently dopey and inefficient as he maintains, then AccuWeather has nothing to worry about. But if AccuWeather is in a desperate fight for its life merely because the NWS wants to release weather information in consumer-friendly form, that would seem to suggest that the NWS does its job at least as well as AccuWeather ever will. An orthodox belief in big government's inefficiency cannot coexist with an orthodox belief in private industry's inability to compete with big government.

How do you resolve this riddle? Perhaps by concluding that the common denominator to contemporary conservative thought isn't ideology at all, but rather, the crude imperative for big government to shovel as many special privileges as possible to big corporations. Adam Smith would be appalled.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.



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