Down To Business: It's Your Money; Keep A Close Eye On It
Politicians and other public figures are more than happy to spend your tax dollars on tech projects and programs that ostensibly serve the general good. But beware whose good they're really serving.
In the 1991 movie "Other People's Money," Danny DeVito plays Larry the Liquidator, a self-centered corporate raider who covets the assets of a mom and pop wire and cable company. Ol' Larry, of course, doesn't care who he squashes along the way--he's Gordon Gekko with a touch of humor, sans the hair and height.
Outside Hollywood and its stereotypes, another, less overt type of greed is at play with other people's money. It involves your tax dollars and the way politicians and other public figures are all too willing to throw it at technology projects to serve their short-term interests.
Just last week, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that he'll seek $5 million in federal funds to help build a Wi-Fi network in Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk counties to provide high-speed wireless Internet access for about 3 million people. Nationwide, scores of municipalities of all sizes are planning and building these networks, many with public money, ostensibly to promote economic development, improve services to residents, enhance public safety, and cut government communications costs.
At a news conference with Schumer, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said the operator or operators to be licensed on Long Island would locate their Wi-Fi towers on county land and make their money on fees and advertising. "We give them our property, they give us the capital investment," Levy was quoted in Newsday. "It shouldn't have to cost taxpayers anything locally."
The implication is that federal money doesn't come out of anyone's pocket, though the last time I scanned my paycheck, those taxes were still being withheld. But the politicians figure that as long as they're seen providing a trendy new public service and they don't have to raise anyone's property taxes to finance it, it's a win-win.
What the politicians didn't say is why two of the most affluent counties in the United States need the federal government to "sponsor" a wireless network for them in the first place, and why the project requires $5 million in federal funds if the operators to be selected will "give us the capital" and offer service as a commercial enterprise. Details, details. But a million here, a million there ...
Now, Chuck Schumer and Steve Levy are no Danny DeVito (or Michael Douglas), but they do command the camera better than most public figures. Just as visible across the country are vendor executives and government bureaucrats who demand all manner of investment in this or that national or regional or local technical priority to ensure economic competitiveness or social well-being. In the IT industry, Bill Gates, Craig Barrett, and John Chambers have been among the most vocal proponents of increased government spending on tech infrastructure, tools, and education, most often warning that the United States is "falling behind" other countries. It's an honest and compelling argument, and they have an ally in the CIA, whose National Intelligence Council issued a report a couple of years ago that, among other things, predicts that the United States will no longer be the world's technical leader by the year 2020 absent a more cohesive government approach to technology policy and spending.
Few can or should argue that universal broadband access and cheaper computers and better schooling aren't virtuous goals, but throwing government money at problems usually doesn't solve them. And if more money is indeed the answer, be careful which Peter is robbed to pay Paul.
Granted, critical areas such as health care and national security aren't exclusive of tech investment, but they're often fighting for the same government dollars. And if we're going to go down the industrial policy road to compete with the likes of India, China, and Japan, better that visionary planners and architects coordinate and set our technical priorities than politicians looking to create jobs and buy votes or commercial interests looking to create markets for their products.
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