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D.F. Krause
  D.F.'s Column Archive
February 22, 2006
Dumb Solutions to Non-Problems? Trust Your Government

A growing number of U.S. cities are trying to provide something for free that is already available for free. You have to love the competitive, entrepreneurial spirit of government. If there’s a service that no one needs, and that you can’t possibly make money off, government will not miss the opportunity.


Of course, when you’re talking about free stuff, the definition of free tends to be different for government people and for human people. For the latter, free means I get it without paying anything for it. For the former, it means I pay taxes to them and they provide it to me without actually invoicing me for it – until they need to make budget cuts.


If I can get something for free (I mean, really free), it is just a matter of time before someone in government will become troubled that I am getting it for free and not from them.


Consider a recent business trip to Muncie, Indiana, one in which I arrived about 30 minutes early and wanted to check my e-mail. It took forever – like, four minutes – to find the one combination of factors that would make this technological endeavor feasible. A coffee shop and parking spot on the street outside said coffee shop.


Put the seat back. Fire up the laptop. Yes, connect to this network. Yes, I know it’s not secure. How else would it be possible to be connecting to it? Acquiring IP address . . . hey! That took 11 seconds! Come on!


From VP Client Services: “Will you approve this proposal budget?” Double it.


From VP Administration: “Do you want to try to seize the assets of that one delinquent ex-client per the default judgment we recently obtained?” Does his house have a Jacuzzi?


From managing editor of newspaper syndicate: “I have some constructive criticism about your column . . . ” Delete.


Done. Took seven minutes, and that’s including the time I spent seeing if anyone responded to my latest post on I mean


It’s hard to imagine anything easier, at least for people who own the necessary equipment (i.e. a laptop not manufactured in 1973), than connecting to the Internet. Or more free. It’s so free, in fact, that you can use other people’s Internet access, which they purchased from private-sector ISPs. And it’s completely legal, and it costs them nothing, and they don’t care!


Many of them even put signs in their windows to alert you of the opportunity to do it. If I give a dollar to a panhandler, I am out more than the guy whose network I just used. And I might get a Jacuzzi out of it. He gets nothing. He’ll never even know I was there, and probably wouldn’t care if he did.


The sharing of Internet access among private users of the stuff is so widespread, so easy and so free, you could almost look at it as voluntary communism. So it only makes sense that government types would want to get in to the business. But as usual, they are trying to do it in the least sensible way possible.


Cities like Philadelphia and Chicago – as well as my port of call, Grand Rapids, Michigan – are trying to set up citywide wireless networks so that everyone who steps inside the city limits can connect. They think they’re being capitalistic because they’re contracting with private firms to set up the networks. They also think they’re being just collectivist enough – they are bureaucrats, after all – because the idea is to extend access to people who can’t afford to pay for it.


And they’re failing on both counts. They’re dumb capitalists, because contracting with private companies to give away something for free can’t possibly make you any money. The coffee houses who let you use their networks for free do so because many of those who partake will also buy lattes and scones. The cities who do this will get nothing.


And they’re dumb collectivists, because they’ve forgotten that anyone who can afford a wireless-enabled laptop can certainly make their way to a coffee shop, industrial park, subdivision or apartment complex and tap into someone’s network. The only thing a citywide wireless network does is prevent you from having to leave your house. And if you are so poor that you can’t afford your own Internet access – and yet you’ve somehow gotten your hands on a wireless-enabled laptop – I’d be interested to see the family budgeting scheme at your house.


Even before wireless went crazy, just about every public library in America would let you use the Internet for free on their computers, as long as you weren’t looking at porn. If you don’t have a laptop, you can still get on the Internet that way. If you do have a laptop, you can get online from just about any street corner in America – especially the street corners in the big cities that want to create these networks.


A dumb solution to a non-problem. Gosh, I love government entrepreneurs. I only wish they could be my competitors.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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