At various times, Barack Obama has been compared to John Kennedy or FDR or Jimmy Carter or even Abraham Lincoln. But one comparison I never heard until he made it himself in his high-profile Kansas speech this week was to Theodore Roosevelt. Arguing implicitly for his own re-election, Obama framed the choice as one about whether or not this would be a country where “everyone gets a fair shot” and argued that “this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice.” The previous time, interestingly, was said not to be the depths of the Great Depression but the height of the Gilded Age when “we had to decide: Would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were being controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low?”
The correct answer, of course, was no. The Progressive movement championed by Teddy Roosevelt weakened giant corporations and vastly improved working conditions. And Obama’s quite right. Living standards rise when technology improves, but for society to genuinely prosper, deployment of new technology can’t be throttled by grasping monopolies. Which is why it’s too bad that Obama’s speech and his policy agenda essentially ignore this issue.
Obama’s speech dwelled primarily on the time-honored Obama themes of taxes, financial regulation, and education. These are worthy ideas all. But they are also exactly what Teddy Roosevelt didn’t bring to the table at a time when income taxes were unconstitutional and schools were entirely in the hands of local authorities. Instead, exactly as Obama said, Roosevelt’s idea was that we needed rules “to ensure competition is fair and open and honest” so “he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for consumers with better services and better prices.”
Today, thanks to the availability of trucks, we don’t need to worry about predatory freight-rail monopolies. But new technologies have created new problems for antitrust policy. Today’s version of the railroad barons are broadband Internet providers.
These telecoms aren’t bad guys, exactly, anymore than the railroad barons were. If they weren’t around, the world would be a worse place and Slate couldn’t possibly exist. But the benefits of the technology they provide are undermined by the reality that there’s almost no competition in the telecom sector. In my apartment, I’m able to choose between Comcast and Verizon, and two choices is about the best you can get in America. Under the circumstances, the companies compete—but only a little. Both offer slightly obsolete technology, crummy customer service, and high prices.
The obstacle to better service is not technology. Average Internet speed in many foreign countries leaves the United States in the dust. And in some select parts of the United States, Americans can get state-of-the-art fiber to the home. But it’s being rolled out at a snail’s pace. In Washington, D.C., where I live, we’re told that Verizon will bring FIOS to the entire city by 2018. They’re four years into the process and there are six more years to go. But six years is a lifetime on the Internet. Six years ago there was no Twitter, no Tumblr, no iPhone, and no Android. And it’s not like D.C. is last in line for this technology. Rollout hasn’t even begun across much of the country.