Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Post No. 104: Should Government Intervene Where Private Sector Monopolies or Near-Monopolies Exist?


We recently asked our readers to submit possible topics for discussion, and we received numerous responses. We've posted six of them thus far. Here is the seventh:

"We have a number of anti-trust laws on the books, including the Sherman and Clayton Acts. However, quite a few private sector business monopolies or "near-monopolies" exist. In fact, some would argue that the Justice Department's enforcement of these laws changed in recent years permitting mergers of previously huge enterprises.

"Consider such things as local cable service; Microsoft's virtual monopoly on computer operating systems; and Monsanto's influence with respect to seed used for food (the article about which you can view in the comments to Post No. 96a). There is also some concern today about the few companies which control our media outlets, and the growing size of Google.

"Some have argued that by de-regulating certain industries, we allowed them to grow so large, and become so interwoven with the general economy, that they became "too big to fail' considering the potential impact on the US and world economies.

"Here's the question. Should government intervene at any point into the business dealings of private industry, and if so, at what point and to what extent?"


It must be kept in mind that there are some economic systemic arguments for monopolies.

We'd also appreciate an itemization of some other monopolies and "near-monopolies."

We'd also be curious to know whether your views on this subject have changed in the past year in light of what happened with AIG, our investment banks, and other financial institutions.

35 comments:

  1. Coincidentally, the link that I will post below appeared in my gmail inbox, sent by a reader of my blog, simultaneously with the announcement of post #104. Since the article to which it links touches upon questions of monopoly in the context of the current financial debacle, it is suggested reading within the context of this post:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/imf-advice

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  2. We would strongly urge our readers to view the Atlantic article to which Rodak referred above. It is a sobering analysis of what went wrong, and how history repeats itself. Perhaps more importantly, we'd venture to say that it was not generated either by a left or right leaning writer. It appears to be Common Sense.

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  3. Interesting reading, indeed. The current administration appears to be headed down the same path, using the same people (or their kin), in the same or similar positions. The author makes a couple of references to this. I am not so sure I would call it common sense, nothing about national and international economics makes much sense to the common man. The author's perspective is tinged, perhaps, by his stint with the IMF. I am not so sure I agree with his suggestions for reducing the crisis but I hold no degrees in economics (nor anything else). Like most people, I see it in simple terms: government meddling in business does not turn out well for the average citizen. I opposed bailouts for a very simple reason, bailouts simply postpone the inevitable.

    I had occasion to visit an Amscot store the other day. Not to do business myself but in the company of someone who needed a large insurance check cashed. My bank would not even take the check as a deposit to my account if endorsed over to me. His only recourse was to use the Amscot services. It cost him 5% of the check's value. It ended up costing even more because he owed fees to Amscot from earlier transactions. These were also deducted from the amount. There were other people in the store, cashing checks because they had nowhere else to do so. The thought came to me that this was a microcosm of the greater economy. People were paying high fees to get cash (in the form of loans) to purchase homes and cars and boats and other things they really didn't need. The Amscot store is a legal loan shark. So are banks and lending institutions who structure loans in terms almost incomprehensible to the average consumer. We have the power to end it. We need, each of us, to practice fiscal restraint. If the average consumer reduces the demand, the banks will respond. Some will fold and be bought up by others. The economy will shrink. And, yes, people will suffer. But they will suffer anyway. Maybe many more and way too much if things are put off too long. It seems we had this conversation not so long ago and I expressed the same thing. We can not fix the economy by granting more power to the government nor can we fix it by stalling the inevitable. All we can do is make the inevitable worse when it finally happens.

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  4. "The Amscot store is a legal loan shark. So are banks and lending institutions who structure loans in terms almost incomprehensible to the average consumer. We have the power to end it." YES and YES! BB

    I blogged on The Atlantic Article ( The Quiet Coup - The Atlantic (May 2009 ) because it made sense to me In fact, it is the first article on the financial melt down that did leave me feeling that I for once had a handle on what had happened.


    Now as for monopolies: Yes the Federal government must, repeat: must, not allow these monsters to exist. This is one area where it takes the power of the federal government to regulate greed. Just a brief look back in history at the Robber Barons era is all one needs to understand monopolies.

    We have an example of a monopoly here in Greensboro with Time Warner Cable TV and Internet service. They are the only cable TV company in Greensboro and so we had to pay their price or have no TV. Because our apartment is on the wrong side of the building we couldn't go with satellite TV as many others have. Now Time Warner (RoadRunner)is raising their fees based on time spent on the Internet. We are with Road Runner, but I understand other companies have to pay Time Warner a fee to be allowed to use their cable in the Greensboro area so it seems they have a monopoly on the Internet service in the area too, which I wasn't aware of. (And naturally this fee is passed onto the customer so all Internet providers in the area will be raising their fees because of Time Warner).

    As with all monopolies the people are really powerless to fight them as individuals. The city or county must take this on and bring competition into the area. The market share is here for another company to come in IMO. BB

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  5. It would seem to me that the problem is not so much government meddling in business, as it is business meddling in government.

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  6. Brenda, I have always disliked the way cable companies are handled. They compete for the right to provide cable service. But that competition ends when the city and/or county grants it. Once in, they "own" it and are never kicked out. Even if you had two cable companies in your city, only one would be authorized to provide service in your particular area. No one has actually done anything to break up these little monopolies. The rationale for this system was that the cable companies had to run the cable, build the infrastructure necessary to provide the service, so they needed a monopoly in order to guarantee a return on their investment. Also to reduce the confusion and chaos caused by having several companies all digging up streets or overloading utility poles. This was a system devised in the early days of cable. As technology advanced, the competition to cable came from satellite and "line of sight" systems.I think most all of the "line of sight" systems have gone under. The dish is good but is subject to weather interruptions and is just as expensive as cable.

    A solution would be to grant the local telco the right to be the "common carrier" for TV programming. Then any cable company could connect to any customer in any part of the the city and you would have something much closer to a "free market" in programming. I don't see anyone moving in this direction, however.

    Rodak, it has become both. What was it Orwell wrote at the end of "Animal Farm"?

    Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

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  7. Douglas: The reason that we viewed the substance of the article as being an example of Common Sense is because the author essentially said that the nations spent beyond their means, and thus became overextended. He also referred to taking on more and more risk, and borrowing more and more.

    It's the same thesis that Paul Kennedy put forth in the Rise and Fall of Great Powers, 1500-2000. Wars and expansion cost money, and governments must acquire it from somewhere. At some point, it runs out.

    Yesterday, there was a History Channel program on how either Philip or Charles essentially ran out of money and had to rob the treasure assembled by the Knights Templar to further finance his projects.

    Sure, there is a lot of complexity associated with economic, especially when one tries to predict what certain actions will yield in the future in a fluid environment. However, one basic principle remains: If you spend more than you receive, ultimately there will be problems.

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  8. Welcome back Brenda: We hope that you are feeling better these days.

    Our sense, perhaps wrongly, is that you are generally opposed to government involvement in the affairs of private sector businesses. Note that we said "generally.") If we are correct in our assessment, and we may not be, articulate for us the generic principle which you would argue be applied in those instances when government involvement/regulation IS needed.

    You did not specifically say that it is needed in the case of the Amscot store to which Douglas referred, or the banks and lending institutions who structure the incomprehensible loans. However, we got a sense that you would do something of a governmental nature.

    In the case of the monopolies, you very explicitly said that the federal government MUST intervene.

    To keep this simple, let's just assume that you want federal government involvement in certain business activities at this point. With respect to what sorts of business activities do you feel they should be involved, and what others they should not?

    By the way, one does not necessarily have to have cable TV in their life. It is arguably a luxury, perhaps falling in the realm of entertainment, or at least something beyond a necessity. Should government get involved in business activities when the consumer truly has a choice?

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  9. Rodak wrote: "It would seem to me that the problem is not so much government meddling in business, as it is business meddling in government."

    We thought about this for some time. We considered businesses lobbying members of governmental bodies. We considered the payment of money and the other favors businesses extended to elected officials. However, we're still not quite sure what you meant. Would you care to provide some examples of concept? Thanks.

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  10. Douglas: Out of curiosity, why should the consuming public EVER have to be protected from ANY activities of private sector businesses? Aren't consumers smart and sharp enough to make their own decisions, whether they be good or bad? When the government swoops in to assist consumers, or "rescue" or "protect" them in a way, isn't this another form of governmental "bailout," rescuing consumers from their own bad decisions? Why should anyone be assisted by government in addressing consumer decisions or choices? If government does have a role in coming to the aid of consumers in connection with their choices / decisions, as to what choices should citizen consumers be left to fend on their own and fail or suffer, and as to which should they not?

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  12. Log, and then along came John Maynard Keynes. We all have used what is sometimes called "leverage" at times. We use the potential income to assure ourselves that we can afford to pay for something over time. It's how we have, in general, purchased "big ticket" items like houses and cars. I stopped doing this with cars some years ago but houses are pretty much out of my range. We have all used credit which is, if you think about it, spending more than you receive. The problem lies in living on that credit or, put another way, constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Businesses borrow short term to pay employees or to purchase products for resale or raw materials or needed machinery. Individuals borrow to buy the big items and then, out of habit, start borrowing to pay for small items. We all seem to live on credit cards. This is not a bad thing if the debt does not become long term. But, for way too many, cheap or easy credit becomes a lifestyle. So, if it's common sense to live within one's income then why isn't it commonly practiced? Because the common sense is that living on future income can work.
    Maybe it is common sense in that it makes sense to live within one's income but just how common is that? We know we should but we don't. Well, I do and have tried to do it all my life. But there have been times where I have had to take on debt. We ignore that "common sense" at times, don't we? If we, the people, ignore that why would we expect government to not ignore it? And government always operates on borrowed money. It buys things with tax revenues that are not yet received, it floats bonds and sells them, and so on. You really don't mean for governments to only expend what they have already taken in, do you?

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  13. "Common sense" is a concept separate and apart from what we want and what we do. It just means that average people recognize what they must do if they want to avoid trouble and complications. We all know that inhaling asbestos, drinking alcohol excessively, traveling at 100 mph, and eating fried chicken on a daily basis, are always risky activities, with potentially devastating and detrimental consequences. That's common sense.

    However, because we want more, or desire this and that, we ignore what we know to be common sense. Those are our choices.

    As for credit, everyone knows that one credit is potentially dangerous. That's no secret or mystery. That's common sense. If one wants to acquire something that is beyond his or her means, one need only work 80 or 90 hours per week, instead of 40, to acquire the additional income. Instead, many acquire loans or function on credit having made the choice that they do not want to work that hard. These are trade-offs in life. Once in trouble, and having made bad choices and mistakes, it is rare that one does not realize when and where it all started.

    As the Logistician often mentions during his workshops, it's pretty rare for someone who has found him or herself self in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation not to be able to identify those events or acts which ultimately led to their current condition.

    Humans are a pretty sharp bunch. Our problem is not with common sense, but with self-restraint, discipline, and taking personal responsibility for our actions.

    One somewhat artificial construct which the Logistician uses in his workshops is to have the participants take full, 100% responsibility for ALL that has occurred to them, followed by taking the position that only they can address their current condition. Blaming your state on others is a worthless enterprise. It doesn't get you anywhere. You are responsible for where you are.

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  14. You are responsible for where you are.

    There's no such thing as coercion? "Better dead than red" is axiomatic?

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  15. This article, coming from a different direction from the last one I linked, may offer some additional insight on the dynamics of power in economic theory and practice:

    http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2009/04/obama_and_the_reawakening_of_c.html

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  16. rodak, certainly there is coercion. After all, that is how things are often sold. It's called, politely, advertising and sales techniques. ("Better dead than red" has nothing to do with economics, it was an old Cold War slogan. I am not sure what the reference is for.)

    Ultimately, coercion or not, the consumer (or the government or the business) makes a decision. It was my argument that common sense is a poor term because no one seems to ever actually exercise it. But I do agree with Log that You are responsible for where you are. And, even if you rationalize that by claiming coercion got you there, you are the only one who can get you out.

    My plan for personal fiscal responsibility was simple and actually quite easy:

    1. Credit cards: charge no more than I can pay at the end of the month.

    2. Save up to purchase a car or purchase only what I can afford. That means no fancy car until my income can support it. I drove little cars, cheap cars, and used cars for most of my life.

    3. After buying a big ticket item, put money away like I had it on credit and was making payments. Basically, "paying myself" instead of a lender.

    4. Buy no more house than I need.

    It's called restraint and it was surprisingly easy to do. Of course, I owned no boats, dune buggies, jetskis, ATVs, or other "toys".

    I guess I resisted the coercion.

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  17. You can make any contemporary analogy to "better dead than red" that comes to mind. You might well be able to employ it with reference to the "Card Check" controversy, for instance.
    Advertising is "coercion" to the extent that it works subliminally, leading one to believe that he is making a free choice, and to feel like he's doing what he wants to do, when, in reality, he is doing something that would never have occurred to him to do, had he not been exposed to the ad campaign. As has famously been said "The Devil's greatest triumph was convincing Man that he doesn't exist."

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  18. Would you care to provide some examples of concept? Thanks.

    I see no need to expand the concept beyond the two factors that you cited in asking the question. Business interests pretty much select who runs for office by funding their campaigns. And corporations fund lobbyists and think-tanks alike, for the purpose of setting policy and and designing legislation through the manipulation of the legislators whom they have bought and paid for.
    Again, this is why I am very strongly in favor of publicly-funded elections.

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  19. Rodak, do you believe that the majority of people are incapable of resisting this advertising? I would grant that it would appear this way but I am optimistic about people and don't think they're really that sheep-like. In other words, I think they are capable of resisting the coercion but take the easier path. I believe that was what Log was referring to also in his You are responsible... remark.
    I dislike the idea of fully publicly funded elections. the reason is I fear the power this puts into the hands of the incumbents. I agree there is a lot of power in the hands of the rich with our current system but there are limits on individual political contributions. Repeated attempts to remove corruption seems to just create new opportunities. I think this is because the "ins" are the ones who write the laws. Making elections entirely publicly funded wouldn't change the nature of incumbents to want to stay in power and write such laws to ensure that. In other words, how could you possibly implement such public funding and how would it actually change anything?

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  20. Log, I just realized you had a couple of other issues that I didn't address. Well, primarily one issue: the role of government in assisting a citizen who has fallen victim to his own inability to follow that common sense you speak of. I firmly believe the government's role is strictly a preventive type. That is, it should be a watchdog against fraud or abuse in the marketplace. And, for the most part, it does this. Some might say it overdoes it at times. I am opposed to allowing lawsuits against tobacco companies, for instance. The risks of smoking have been known since well before the famous Surgeon General's Report but I would grant some leeway for those who can prove they started smoking well before that year (1963?). If you started after that report, you cannot claim ignorance of the risks. Common sense?

    Post fraud, the government's role is to stop it and punish the purveyors. I do not see using the public weal to bail out those who were suckered. I say this even though I have just recently learned that my mother-in-law has been victimized by a shady "credit protection" group that seems to be operating fairly openly.

    I don't call this caveat emptor, I see it more as a lesson learned. If there is no downside to making mistakes then what incentives does one have to avoid getting suckered?

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  21. Douglas: Do adults need a watchdog against fraud and abuse on the front end? That would suggest that they are not capable of taking care of themselves. Many are arguing today that those citizens who did not exercise caution and prudence with respect to certain risks, not be bailed out by government. Why should government do anything on the front end? Doesn't that encourage people to let their guard down, thinking that someone else or some agency is going to perform that due diligence? The more that the government does on the front end, aren't the citizens going to become more and more lax? Isn't that the argument advanced about those receiving entitlements? That they have become accustomed to someone else taking care of their needs?

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  22. As we type this, C-Span2 is re-airing the book discussion involving author Dean Baker regarding his book, Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy.

    http://www.c-spanarchives.org/library/index.php?main_page=schedule

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  23. I dislike the idea of fully publicly funded elections. the reason is I fear the power this puts into the hands of the incumbents.

    One reason, beyond name recognition, that incumbents have an advantage now is that as proven "winners" they can more easily get more financial backers the next time around.
    With publicly funded elections, they would have to qualify for the public money each time they ran. If they did not qualify because of disatisfaction with their performance they would be given no money and be unable to run. Public funding would neutralize incumbency, not strengthen it.

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  24. I should also have mentioned that even where the incumbent did qualify to run (as most would), a Ted Kennedy would receive no more money to spend that would a qualifying Green Party candidate running for high office for the first time.
    Barack Obama demonstrated how a name recognition advantage can be overcome by intelligent use of the internet, making some good speeches in the right venue, and effective deployment of volunteers.
    While he ended up by attracting huge sums of money, it must be remembered that he had already overcome Hillary's name advantage in order to do so.
    I'm not suggesting that Obama succeeded under the same conditions that would prevail with public funding. But he did demonstrate how name recognition can effectively be overcome.

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  25. Log, there are a sufficient number of clever but larcenous people who would take advantage of the significant minority of us who do not have a reasonable amount of awareness to avoid being fleeced. I am sure you know more than a few. As an attorney, one of your duties is to do that due diligence for your clients. Are you concerned that government is intruding on your domain? (just a little joshing there).

    I do not worry about the fully functional adults. I worry about the less functional ones. You are aware that a large portion of any given population is below average IQ wise? This explains the presence of infomercials, shopping channels, and so on. Even the allegedly intelligent and the elite can be fooled as we witness in the Bernie Madoff scheme. Most of these people can afford the losses they took so I don't concern myself too much about them. I also don't worry about my own peer group. But I recognize that there are some people who seek to bend the law, or stretch the limits of ethical behavior, so I realize that some government intrusion is needed. It is unfortunate that a large number of such people are politicians and bureaucrats. Still, product safety, pyramid schemes, outright fraud and con games are dangerous things and the government is a useful tool in controlling them. I wouldn't think you would be arguing for a totally "hands off" policy. So I am assuming you are taking a devil's advocate position here.

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  26. Rodak, let me remind you once again that the very people you wish to control by this publicly funded election concept are the ones who would have to write and enact the laws governing it. This strikes me as a bit foolish. Do you really expect the incumbents to pass any election law which would reduce, rather than enhance, their chances of retaining their office or seeking a higher one?

    And supposing, by some miracle, you do see such a law passed which is not fraught with opportunity for abuse, how do you get around that pesky First Amendment? You know, the one that speaks of Freedom of Speech? You do realize that the courts have repeatedly ruled that political spending and political advertising fall into that category? How do you stop the influence of interested parties such as unions, corporations, and individuals who could advertise on behalf of the candidates of their choice? Without gutting that amendment, I am afraid your concept stands no chance.

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  27. Douglas wrote: "[T]here are a sufficient number of clever but larcenous people who would take advantage of the significant minority of us who do not have a reasonable amount of awareness to avoid being fleeced."

    Awareness. Hmmm. We don't question much of what you outlined in terms of potential abuse.

    Are Americans aware of the potential adverse health consequences associated with eating many fast foods, particularly those which are deep fat fried?

    Were the citizens who purportedly were not credit-worthy and who recently suffered foreclosure, about whom much of the public is yelling "irresponsibility," unaware?

    You mentioned my law firm which aided many a corporate client. We were a business in the private sector. First question: Should government intervene on behalf of the soon-to-be fleeced, or should private sector entities perform that function?

    In the mortgage crisis, were any of the lending institutions guilty of predatory lending, or taking advantage of people who were unaware? Should the government have stepped in on the front end, or should private sector watchdogs have done so? Should the lenders be civilly or criminally prosecuted like a Madoff?

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  28. Do you really expect the incumbents to pass any election law which would reduce, rather than enhance, their chances of retaining their office or seeking a higher one?

    No.

    how do you get around that pesky First Amendment?

    Oh, please. There are all kinds of rules regulating and limiting campaign donations already. The constitutional foundation of the ruling that money = free speech is just as shaky as the interpretation of "privacy" in Roe v. Wade.
    And how, btw, do you get around those pesky charges of wholesale bribery?

    How do you stop the influence of interested parties such as unions, corporations, and individuals who could advertise on behalf of the candidates of their choice?

    It wouldn't be stopped, it would be regulated so as to ensure an equal playing field. More money should not equal more rights. My goal is to have ideas, rather than stark exposure, be the primary motivation of citizens in making their voting decisions. My secondary goal is to make possible a much wider choice of political orientation among the candidates running for office: more ideas to choose from.
    If these things are impossible, there is not much reason to vote at all. Our government now is "a turkey with two right wings." (I think Pat Buchanan said that.)

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  29. Log, I think people are well aware of the unhealthiness of fast food, smoking, and so on. Is it legal to sell these products? Yes. Are there laws (now) requiring warning labels and signs regarding the health issues? Yes. Are you opposed to these laws?

    As for the people who got in over their heads financially, how do you determine "predatory lending practices?" After the fact? Would that mean that anyone who couldn't make his payments was a victim of such? There are laws against predatory lending practices. The banks and loan officers who practice such should be punished. The victims of such should be allowed out of their loans and allowed recourse to sue the institutions. I think this is all already in place.

    So far as I know, no bailed out lending institution has been officially charged with using predatory lending practices. Some have been accused informally, branded as doing so, but I don't recall any actually being accused formally and then being bailed out.

    I could be wrong.

    If we, as the government, decide it is ok to determine an act is illegal retroactively then we have tossed out due process. I believe there are a number of court decisions which say it is unconstitutional to do so.

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  30. Rodak, there are many campaign laws which may be seen as infringements on freedom of speech. In fact, several have been struck down as in violation of the First Amendment. This is an issue that both the Left and the Right seems to be in agreement about.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/6/26/133510/810

    That we have laws limiting contributions does not automatically make them Constitutional. Laws such as these must be challenged. Personally, I am opposed to such laws. I see no problem with anyone supporting a candidate with every dime they can muster. It's called "freedom". I don't care how much money backs a candidate, my vote can't be bought in that manner. You may feel differently, you may feel that the voters are easily swayed by massive advertising campaigns rather than the truth of the matter. In that case, you might want to question what happened in this last campaign. Certainly Obama had more money and spent more than McCain. Did he "buy" the election? Or was that an exception?

    By the way, I get over those pesky charges of wholesale bribery by pointing out that wholesale bribery is clearly illegal. Bribery has never been deemed protected by the First (or any other) Amendment.

    Actually, you conceded your concept is nothing more than fantasy when you answered the first question with a "no". Everything after that is moot.

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  31. Here's a novel thought, at least for us, about which we had not previously thought. Let's assume that each individual has their own right to free speech, and the ability to express themselves. An organization, including corporations are entities consisting of people joining forces together. Why should these collective entities be entitled to more speech opportunities than those of us who function only as individuals? Is that fair?

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  32. We suspect that the reason that many have focused on the issue of intellectual freedom is because of the forum involved / context in which it arises, namely an institution of higher learning, where historically we have encouraged individuals to explore all manner of thinking.

    An argument could be made that to place restrictions on the expression of thoughts or beliefs in an academic setting potentially a "pre-emptive" effect. The issue then becomes which speech or thoughts are acceptable and which ones are not.

    If this were a secondary / grade school forum, the analysis would arguably be different. Society might deem it inappropriate for minors to be exposed to such thoughts without the approval of their parents.

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  33. Douglas: We laughed out loud when we read, "Rodak, I do not answer hypotheticals lightly. Not since I got in quite a bit of trouble in my first year in the Navy answering one. I treat them like minefields.

    The Logistician often tells of his experience in the military where he learned 4 responses. Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse sir. Sir, I do not understand.

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  34. Douglas: Do adults need a watchdog against fraud and abuse on the front end? That would suggest that they are not capable of taking care of themselves. Many are arguing today that those citizens who did not exercise caution and prudence with respect to certain risks, not be bailed out by government. Why should government do anything on the front end? Doesn't that encourage people to let their guard down, thinking that someone else or some agency is going to perform that due diligence? The more that the government does on the front end, aren't the citizens going to become more and more lax? Isn't that the argument advanced about those receiving entitlements? That they have become accustomed to someone else taking care of their needs?

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