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Cheerleading and Democracy 101
I've been impressed for several months now with the vigor and even
fervor of this list. A voluminous commentary--probably a thousand or more
posts at this point--have chronicled a sordid tale of abuse of the accepted
rules of capitalist behavior by the Microsoft Corporation, a.k.a. Bill
Gates. The list's members--or at least a substantial percentage of the 270
total--have related no end of unfair business practices by this 21st century
reincarnation of the original Robber Baron of 100 years ago, John D.
Rockefeller--he of the great Oil Trust of 19th century America.
A timid and reluctant Justice Department is in the process of trying
to enforce (in a hostile court environment) a flaccid consent decree that
both (a) prohibits and (b) authorizes, the practice that most offends our
members, to wit, the "tying" of virtually all computer software to
Microsoft's core monopoly, its Windows operating system. This list has been
a vigorous cheerleading squad--encouraging the federal bureaucracy in its
small efforts while exhorting it to somehow take a more heroic stance,
perhaps even to behead the monster once and for all and thus to free the
land from its long tyranny.
How does one get the legal bureaucrats at Justice to do what our
members want? Any good lobbyist in Washington can tell you--make their
phones ring. More specifically, make their phones ring from Capitol
Hill--from the offices of senators and congressmen. And how does one
arrange that? Simple. Just persuade the latter that a call a la Microsoft
is in their self-interest, i.e., will promote their re- election. The
formula for persuading a nation's legislature? It's called Democracy 101.
Its members have to hear from not just the professional lobbyists
representing the monopolists but from the real people who oppose them. The
Internet, as I've emphasized before, offers a powerful tool that works to
the advantage of the latter, one that tends to level the playing field of
democracy--that confers on every citizen the power of costless communication
with every member of a nation's legislature.
This list's hard-working majority is no doubt busily preparing
individual letters to Congress on the Microsoft problem--letters which can
be sent to most of our 535 lawmakers with the push of a single "send" button
after our technical colleagues deliver the necessary software program. A
few though--including some of our most articulate members over the past
several months--have expressed to me doubts about both democracy and about
themselves. "They won't read my letter. They have staff people and/or
software that automatically trashes incoming messages that don't promise
6-figure campaign contributions. Ordinary citizens don't have a chance.
Count me out. I won't waste my time writing a letter to Congress on the
Microsoft monopoly. Our democracy doesn't work." In other words: "I'm
unable to write a letter that's good enough to even reach the desk of any
one of those 535 legislators in Washington." Poor self-esteem?
Perhaps the most anti-democratic of the messages I've received,
though, is the following comment on the consolidated (power-structure) E
mailing lists we now know are feasible, e.g., the one that will let any
citizen send a letter to all U.S. senators with the push of a single "send"
button--and, with a similar click, to send it also to our 435 congressmen,
plus one more push of the button to reach our 1,000 federal judges. To me,
E-mail lists of the powerful are wonderful, an empowerment of the citizenry.
Yet one of our most prolific contributors has sent me a message containing
this querulous thought: "SHOULD WE REALLY HAVE THESE KINDS OF [Internet]
LISTS?" They give too much power to all of us ordinary people who use the
Internet? They subject our leaders to too much democratic "pressure?" Yes,
we really should have these kinds of lists. It's what democracy is all about.
Is Congress so corrupted that it's futile to send any kind of
message to its 100 senators and 435 congressmen? Not in my view. There's
such a thing as being too cynical, too willing to say, all is hopeless,
nobody will listen to me. Do those 535 legislators have robot computer
programs that automatically 'trash' messages from good guys like us? Or
congressional clerks that are told to bury incoming mail if there's no check
attached? In my 15 years in Washington, I never encountered an office where
subordinates were authorized to destroy mail. Open, sort, route to, and the
like is the usual routine. The clerk who slits the envelopes is never, in
my experience, authorized to trash the mail. Her job, rather, is to "route"
it--send it to the ranking executives who report to the boss. And who, in
turn, can "route" it somewhere else, e.g., forward incoming mail on
Microsoft's monopoly downtown to Janet Reno, with a request to her for a
report back to the senator or congressman.
Members of Congress, unless I've been misled, don't allow their
incoming mail to be trashed d.o.a., dead on arrival--whether by their
clerical staffs or computer programs. It may be routed around but,
ultimately, it all lands on their desks. Its their life blood, the
umbilical chord that connects them to the country. Among 535 legislators,
one would expect a wide variety of mail-handling practices but with at least
one central feature--if it's an intelligent letter, make sure I see it.
Why should E-mail be treated differently? My guess is that, in the
typical congressional office, it's printed out, sorted by subject matter
etc, reviewed by ranking aides, routed (where appropriate) to the various
government agencies (e.g., the Justice Department), or taken directly to the
legislator's desk where the subject warrants it. Why assume that, instead,
he's enlisted the latest technological gimmicks to keep himself in ignorance
of the incoming flow of intelligence on the state of the country and the
economy? There are a lot of ex-senators and former congressmen around. Why
don't we make a list and ASK them if they had their staffs and/or their
computer programs trash "unsolicited" messages like our complaints about
Microsoft? And who is more experienced in the ways of Congress than Ralph
Nader? Has anyone asked him whether E-mail from the members of this list is
doomed to the trash heap on Capitol Hill, without ever making it to the
desks of the legislators themselves?
The last time I heard, Ralph still had great faith in democracy--and
in the importance of citizen participation in it. "Should we really have
these kinds of lists?," the kind that allow the public to express its views
to its national leadership? I'd very much like to hear his thoughts on the
advisability of E-mail re Microsoft's monopoly from this list's 270 members
to Congress' 535 legislators.
Charles Mueller, Editor
ANTITRUST LAW & ECONOMICS REVIEW