My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #12,
August 5, 2001


You know, the last time I got a new kitten, I considered naming it TISTAFL, cats being the ultimate proof, after all, that There Is Too a Free Lunch. I mention this because this free lunch business has been on my mind a lot lately. You see, sometimes you don't even realize you'd been getting one until it vanishes, and that's what's starting to happen these days.

Free music, for instance, is on its way out, now that Napster has been sued into submission and made an instrument of the recording industry. There are Napster lookalikes, to be sure, but lawyers have been sicced on them too, and on any ISPs that let their subscribers use them. Of course there was a good bit of argument about whether the music was free so much as stolen, but, no matter, now. Something there is that really loves a wall, namely the companies that collect tolls from those passing through its gate.

Of course, as my friend Barbara Quint says, "even if there's no such thing as a free lunch, if someone else picks up the tab, that's close enough for most people." Many of the free services we take for granted -- TV shows, radio, free e-mail and web sites -- are costly to provide, but the charges are footed by advertisers. Others, like newspapers and magazines, are sold to us well below cost because they're subsidized by ads.

With the decline of the internet economy, though, there are now fewer businesses wanting to advertise. The ones remaining want more proof that their ads are actually being viewed and listened to -- they want to pay not just for placement, but for clickthroughs.

Thus we're starting to see the down side of "free." One is that magazines and newspapers are dying, and the ones that survive are getting skinnier by the day. (Apparently the new motto is "all the news we can afford to print.") Hundreds of editors and writers are getting laid off and offered early retirement. When newspapers offer buyouts to even established columnists like Ellen Goodman, you know times are getting hard.

Another consequence is that web services based on an advertising business model, like Yahoo, Lycos, AltaVista, and such, have to come up with other revenue streams to survive. In some cases this has led to the development of interesting new services -- Amazon, for instance, uses its existing ability to process credit card payments to allow its users to donate money to their favorite websites (see below). Salon and other online magazines are trying to attract paying subscribers with premium services.

Others have used less benign strategies, though. Some search engines are offering the top placement in search results to companies that are willing to pay for it -- and not bothering to mention this to searchers who may naively believe that a number one listing has something to do with quality.

So, if we want to prevent the death or corruption of those subsidized commercial products and services we love, we may have to start carrying our own weight a bit more, by forking over real cash, or by clicking on those ads that are still there.

Some of the other free services we take for granted, like 911 and clean water and fire protection and libraries, are not so much free as pre-paid with our tax money. Those services are also in danger, both from a wave of tax cutting and from an increasingly widespread notion that anything that is free or inexpensive is worth exactly what it costs. (How else can you explain so many people spending outrageous amounts of money on bottled water that often isn't even as good as tap water?)

The trouble with cutting back on government services is that most of us don't even know what we will lose. When my congressman had a town meeting in April, I asked him if offering a massive tax cut wasn't a way of saying that government had already done its job and had money left over? And in that case, how did he explain the fact that the government has allowed so many of our bridges, dams, highways and railroad tracks to fall into dangerous disrepair? Why has it cut down on meat inspection just as food-borne antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a serious threat? Why has it cut back on the Centers for Disease Control when the combination of international travel and new bacteria and viruses threatens to cause worldwide epidemics? Why has it reduced inspection of water treatment systems? Why isn't it helping cities rebuild crumbling sewers that put public health at risk?

My congressman huffed and puffed a bit about how all they were doing was cutting back government a little -- they were still spending lots of money. Which of course is true. They're just not spending it on the absolutely basic obligations of government: public health and safety. Government is not obligated to build dams or bridges, though politicians do love to dedicate new ones. But once it's put dams and bridges in place, if they fail for lack of maintenance, people will die. If people assume their food and automobiles and drugs and airlines are safe because the government has regulated them, they will take fewer precautions to protect themselves; people will die when those systems fail as well.

I think most taxpayers would agree that public health and safety should be free to all. I would argue for the importance of free information as well, especially in an information-based economy, like ours, because the history of knowledge shows that widespread dissemination of ideas and research speeds up the rate of new discoveries.

Until recently, the government has done a splendid job of disseminating for free the tax-funded information it collects and sponsors, first in depository libraries, and now on the internet. We're talking about census data, National Institutes of Health research, corporate financial information, congressional hearings, weather forecasts, environmental impact studies, engineering standards, court decisions, product safety information, documents and photos from the Library of Congress, and much, much more. This is information that is used every day, by businessmen, scientists, doctors, investors, home buyers, parents -- in short, by all of us, whether we know it or not.

Recently, though, Congress has been acting to restrict that free flow of information. First it yanked back into copyright protection many works that had been freely available when it extended copyright by 20 years (since existing law already granted it for the life of the creator plus 75 years, the new law primarily benefits fortunate heirs and owners of corporate icons like Mickey Mouse ).

Private publishers, who see enormous profit potential in publications and databases provided free by the government, such as Medline and PubScience, have been successfully lobbying Congress to cut off funding for such services, so that they can offer them for profit instead. Since these publishers routinely charge thousands of dollars for their journals and databases, many researchers, and even many libraries, would be unable to afford what was once freely available information. The free flow of ideas we've become accustomed to would be replaced with a proprietary, Microsoft sort of world, full of flawed products that hadn't been subjected to testing and improvement by a multitude of users. We really can't afford to so endanger the goose that lays our golden eggs of knowledge.

Now, you can argue with those ideas. In fact, you should -- we all need to think about what should be subsidized and what shouldn't. The problem is that the tax cutting came BEFORE any discussion of what free lunches government is obligated to provide, and how much it will cost to do it right -- if public health depends on a clean meat supply, it's not enough for government to just insure that it's not actually green. After we've taken care of the basics, then we can work our way down the priority list.

The question to ask of any program, I think, is how it benefits ALL of us. Does a local transport project reduce pollution? Does a new bridge smooth the flow of interstate commerce? The place to start cutting the budget is the truly free lunches, the transfer of national wealth, without a national payoff, to specific individuals and communities and businesses -- I do believe we have all the monuments to Senator Byrd we need, thank you.

There is such a thing as a free lunch. But perhaps we should think a bit more about who's doing the eating and who's paying for it, not to mention whether what we're getting is good for us or just more junk food.

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