REFORM CORNER: A recurring debate in Britain: how to reform the House of Lords. All factions are ready to jettison the old arrangement, in which the scions of England's decrepit aristocracy inherit their parliamentary seats. But what system shall replace it? The Conservatives want a regime that will maintain their hold on the House. The Labourites, naturally, want something different. And the far left, as always, whispers plans to abolish the House of Lords altogether, and perhaps the royal family as well.
I propose that they take their cues from the American experiment in welfare reform and from conservative proposals to privatize PBS:
1. Members of the House of Lords should have two years to find jobs in the private sector; after that, they will be booted from Parliament. The state should, of course, take into account the centuries of dependency that have rendered the British upper class so dysfunctional and indolent, and provide the departing Lords with life-skills training.
2. The crown jewel of the British aristocracy -- that is, the crown itself -- should take advantage of its status as a popular commodity. Just as Sesame Street and Barney could easily survive without public subsidy, the Windsors should capitalize on their franchise. There exists a large and apparently insatiable market for royal-family merchandising, even outside the Empire. Thus far, only outsiders have taken advantage of this, as with Elton John's decision to release a Lady Di tie-in CD.
It is, of course, difficult to release creative energies that have for so long been wasted on ritual ceremony, low-key activism, bulimia, and inbreeding. But with the right incentives, the English aristocracy might finally be transformed from parasites to productive members of society.
There is no magic number -- 35 percent, 45 percent, 25 percent -- that represents the perfect amount of stations a TV network should be allowed to own. Nor should the government be in the business of trying to compute such a figure. If you're satisfied with TV programming now, you will probably continue to be satisfied with it under the new rules. If you're dissatisfied, there's no way to rejigger this reg upwards or downwards that's going to please you.
Perhaps for that reason, the ideological opponents of media consolidation -- as opposed to the miscellaneous industry lobbyists who oppose the changes for reasons of their own -- have also made an issue out of the way the new rules are being passed. It's happening too fast, they say, and with not enough public input. When the FCC reduced the number of public hearings it held on the issue, Democratic commissioners organized independent forums of their own, in theory to get more views on the table and in practice to show how the decision-makers at the agency aren't interested in listening to The People.
On one level, the critics have a point: Federal communication policy is made by unelected bureaucrats with closer ties to the industry they regulate than to the public they nominally represent. On another level, though, the critics are playing make-believe. The commissioners are already aware of all the arguments about these issues, and delaying the decision so more people can be heard isn't likely to change the outcome. If the system is undemocratic, it is because it concentrates so much power into so few hands, not because the rest of us have so little time to make our case. At best, those guerrilla forums are a form of theater, a way to dramatize the cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated. At worst, they're complaints aimed at the wrong target.
Meanwhile, the defenders of deregulation are being even more disingenuous. The revised rules will (mostly) loosen the government's control of the airwaves, and so the reformers present themselves as the advocates of economic freedom. But when it comes to a much more important libertarian issue -- opening the spectrum to new users and uses -- most of them have been AWOL. Serious changes in the way spectrum is allocated and allowed to be used could radically alter the airwaves, bringing in a world of cheap or free broadband-quality Internet access that is portable, wireless, and therefore capable of competing directly with AM, FM, and TV broadcasters. There is a serious debate over how best to accomplish this technically, but virtually everyone who's a part of that argument recognizes that the most important prerequisite is a matter of regulation, not engineering. The FCC must allow much more flexibility in how licensees may use their spectrum, thus eliminating the allocation bottlenecks that so aggravate the telecom industry; and it must make more room for unlicensed use of the ether, so shared-spectrum technologies such as WiFi and UltraWideBand can flourish. FCC chief Michael Powell has, to his credit, given a rhetorical boost to these new technologies. But his agency has offered very little in the way of real reform.
That could change. But if that happens, it will not be because the beneficiaries of the government's entry barriers make spectrum reform part of their "deregulatory" agenda. They care about real economic liberty about as deeply as their opponents care about the precise level of the ownership cap.
SELF-PROMOTION: My new column for Reason Online is about media bias. In retrospect, it's one of my weaker pieces -- poorly organized and not especially well-developed. But I do get off a few good lines.
Meanwhile, my brother Andrew has a long and fascinating article in the Baylor Law Review, Winter 2003 edition. It's a history of the application of Mexican law in the Texas courts, a topic that should interest anyone curious about polycentric legal systems. Along the way he covers a host of colorful tidbits, of which my favorite is the briefly independent Republic of the Rio Grande.
At any rate, it's a terrific collection, one I've been exploring slowly over the last 24 hours. So far my favorite track is Osymyso's "Intro Introspection," an epic mash-up that combines the introductions of maybe 100 famous songs, from "My Way" to "Come On, Eileen." No mere novelty, this mix is DJ genius.
Johnny Learns His Manners (Charles McGirl, 1946): A while back I mentioned a classroom movie they showed us every year at Glenwood Elementary School, in which a little boy named Johnny is so rude that he turns into a pig. I've since learned that this film is called Johnny Learns His Manners, that it was released in 1968, and -- most oddly -- that it's a remake. The original movie (available online) isn't quite as weird as the '60s version, but it tells the same basic story and is filmed in an entertainingly low-budget manner: as a series of hand-drawn still shots that only occasionally seem to move, with a narrator who plays all the parts himself.
The Star Wars Holiday Special (Steve Binder, 1978): Speaking of elementary school: For years I half-remembered the other kids at Glenwood going on about a Star Wars Christmas special. For years I assumed that I had either imagined this or completely misunderstood what they were saying. Then, in 2000, I found a bootleg copy and watched it, mouth agape.
The show is gloriously, hilariously bad. Somehow they managed to bring in most of the cast of the original movie, yet the picture itself is directed on the Ed Wood level. It's over 90 minutes long, with much padding devoted to matters such as domestic life among the wookies (there is a long, preternaturally dull sequence of Chewbacca's wife watching a cooking show) -- and, in what is surely one of the most disturbing sequences ever aired on television, some asexual virtual-reality wookie porn.
I thought I was going to be able to get through the tape without hitting fast-forward, but then special guest star Bea Arthur started to sing...
Shaft (John Singleton, 2000): There's things I like about this movie, and there's things I don't. If you draw just one lesson from it, let it be this: Samuel L. Jackson is one bad motherfucker.
Except the drive there and back. Driving on I-85 is enjoyable enough. Driving on I-95 is not. If there's a part of the country I've come to hate, it's that swath of northern Virginia that long ago ceased to have any connection to the south and now consists mostly of office parks, D.C. spillover, and the occasional crazy driver. (Friends of mine who live in this area needn't worry: My distaste applies to the landscape, not to the people who live there. Well, not all of them, anyway.)
Hope turns 100 later this month, and the tributes are beginning to flow; Mark Steyn published a very perceptive one in the Sunday Telegraph earlier this week. I'm a big fan of Hope's movies from the 1940s (my favorite is The Road to Morocco, but almost all of them are good). Tell that to most people these days, and they'll look at you kinda funny, like you've just confessed to crying whenever you read the verse of Rod McKuen. It's been so long since Hope was funny that most of the hip young turks who dethroned him 30 years ago have themselves become witless gasbags in the latter-day Hope tradition. My own father thinks I'm nuts for liking the man. As a comedian, Hope hasn't aged very well.
But those early movies have -- and, by Steyn's account, so has his early standup. Indeed, Steyn argues that Hope invented modern standup comedy, an argument that is at least partially true. But it's the pictures that have got a hold on me: Monsieur Beaucaire and The Ghost Breakers and all those road movies with Bing Crosby. (Well, not The Road to Hong Kong. That came from a later, fatter period.) They're still out there, on tape and DVD. Come May 29, when Hope becomes a centenarian, rent one in the old man's memory. Once upon a time, the guy was really good.
SELF-PROMOTION: My new column for Reason's website is about political speechmaking. Also, a couple of short squibs I did for the May Reason -- one on "empowerment zones" and one on radio censorship -- are now online.
Meanwhile, I see that Steve Kaye is telling his readers how we spent my first evening in New York last week. Monkeys make a cameo, as do chandeliers.
The book's title contains two lies: first, that it is libertarian; second, that it is journalism. Aside from its mild (some would say half-assed) opposition to the war on drugs, the book's libertarianism never extends beyond the most universally held pro-freedom sentiments: that Communism is bad, that government regulation sometimes goes too far, that there are goofy goings-on on college campuses. Meanwhile, Buckley issues paeans to Sidney Hook and Richard Nixon, defenses of military action everywhere from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Iraq, and unqualified praise for Franco and Pinochet.
So what kind of libertarian is Buckley? "I do not understand," he writes, "where Congress got the idea that it has any business telling an adult American what he can and what he cannot purchase from a willing seller, if you're not talking drugs or machine guns." Ah -- a libertarian for drug laws and gun control. Interesting kind.
As for journalism, its primary purpose is to relate facts, and this book offers little more than passing, effervescent opinions. A few of these are odd enough to become news in their own right, in a Ripley's-believe-it-or-not way (e.g., Buckley's bizarre belief that Princess Di is the most attractive woman in the world). More often, we are treated to this sort of drivel:
"Bob Dylan comes on stage, and on either side of him are two famous guitarists from the Rolling Stones. He last shaved, oh, three days before (Why?). He is wearing blue jeans and a scruffy T-shirt arrangement of sorts (Why? Trademark? Change trademarks?). The two guitarists arrive smoking cigarettes, which dangle from their lips for the first minute or two of the first song (Why?). Their arms are entirely bare, and they otherwise wear what looks like a stripped-down dark-colored T-shirt (Why? Heat?)."
...and so on, and on and on, for longer than I care to transcribe. I don't necessarily object to reading a columnist's passing thoughts, if he or she is a columnist who writes particularly well or whose opinions I've come to respect. But I find it hard to respect someone who wastes my time wondering whether blue jeans and a T-shirt are Bob Dylan's "trademark."
William Buckley was once considered a dynamic young turk, long before I was born. By my day, he had already been absorbed by celebrityhood, and National Review had slipped into boredom and predictability. If the Review has been somewhat rejuvenated since then, it is mostly because Buckley no longer has much to do with running it. His last significant contribution to its pages was the double-issue-length essay "In Search of Anti-Semitism," a dull and intellectually dishonest meditation on whether Gore Vidal, Pat Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, and the Dartmouth Review dislike Jews. Mostly, Bill churns out spy novels and books about sailing, which many people purchase and some presumably read.
Buckley had almost as little to do with the production of this book as he does with the production of his magazine: It was edited by his sister, Patricia Bozell, and contains no original Buckley writing beyond its acknowledgements page. It is, in short, a slapdash commercial product, created with little care and blessed with little merit. It raises only one significant question: After two or three decades of going through the motions, can Buckley tell the difference anymore?