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Federal Vouchers Are Coming!

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The long wait is finally over. Federal vouchers are coming!

Before you get too excited, however, I have to inform you that the vouchers are not for education. You can’t use these vouchers to send your child to the school of your choice.

Instead, because of the government-mandated switch for broadcast TV from analog to digital bandwidths, set for Feb. 17, 2009, upwards of 20 million television sets will be obsolete, only able to receive the then-defunct analog signals.

“To avoid a consumer revolt, Congress has set aside about $1.5 billion to smooth the transition. Owners of outmoded TV sets will be eligible for two vouchers, worth $40 each, to help buy converter boxes that will enable today’s analog TV sets to receive digital signals,” Fortune magazine reports.

The government argues that the move will open up huge new areas of bandwidth for greater technical innovation and delivery. Once broadcast TV is moved to the digital spectrum, the old analog bandwidths will be auctioned off, and the government stands to make a pretty penny on the deal. “The sale of this valuable, scarce real estate is expected to bring in about $10 billion, maybe more. That will help reduce the federal budget deficit,” writes Marc Gunther.

Of course, those companies buying up the newly-opened space will be better off too: “With the new auction, we will finally become a broadband nation,” says Blair Levin, a Washington analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. “Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Intel, Dell — these companies will all benefit. The more broadband pipes you have, the more applications will come along, the more often you will upgrade your device.”

The interesting thing about these digital tuner vouchers is that one argument for their issue is that the poor will be disproportionately affected by the switch. Gunther writes, “But for consumers with one of those 70 million sets — many of whom are likely to be poor, elderly or uneducated, being forcibly switched from one technology to another will be a nightmare.”

Gunther goes on to describe the “nightmare scenario,” in which “people who depend on free, over-the-air TV for news and entertainment will lose their access, or have to pay more for it, so that the rest of us can get faster service on our Blackberries and ESPN on our cell phones.”

Last I checked, news and weather information on which people depend is still freely available over the radio. And maybe some of us would be better off with less access to TV. AC Nielsen reports (PDF) that “During the 2004-05 TV season (which started September 20, 2004 and just ended September 18, 2005), the average household in the U.S. tuned into television an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day.”

We’ve all heard the stories about families on federal assistance in the inner city with big screen TVs, or living in trailer parks with satellite dishes. Nowadays, Marx might say that TV is the opiate of the people rather than religion, or better yet, that TV has become the religion of the people.
And I have another bit of news for you: “Poor” is a relative term. If you live in America and have a television set, you are richer than most of the people in the world. A 1999 Heritage study found that “nearly all poor households have color television, but nearly half actually own two or more color television sets, nearly three quarters of the poor now have VCRs, and more than one in five own two VCRs. While these numbers do not suggest lives of luxury they also seem quite distant from conventional images of poverty.”

“People would be lazy with or without television,” I once wrote. I still think that’s true, but if the government-mandated switch from analog to digital broadcast spurs some people to get skills and training and to increase their standard of living such that they can buy their own HDTV, all the better I say. Let it serve as an incentive for the improvement of people’s economic condition. That 8 hours families spend watching television isn’t doing much to improve their Sitz im Leben.

I’d love to see a study of the economics of TV watching. Is there any correlation between the amount of TV that people watch and their income level? Do those with lower incomes watch a disproportionate amount of TV when compared to those with higher incomes? And I’d like it to be something a little more sophisticated than the direct causal links trumpeted here between TV and academic achievement, obesity, cognitive-development, and violence.

La Shawn Barber urges us: “Turn off the idiot box and stock your homes with books. For your children’s sake.” She cites an op-ed that discusses the fact that discusses the fact that “black children watch nearly two hours more television a day than white students,” and links that to the so-called achievement gap. “Virtually every study concludes that when you watch that much television, you will be a poor student in every subject,” writes Derrick Z. Jackson. So while there may be an indirect link between TV and educational achievement, this would at least be an indirect link between TV and income level, since the level of education has such a correlation with earning power.

There is a certain logic to the HDTV vouchers, but it runs along the lines of the arguments against “unfunded mandates” by the government, which I don’t necessarily find compelling. There’s certainly some legitimate criticism to be said against the way the government monopolizes and regulates communication over the airwaves.

But what does it say about our nation that we’re going to provide vouchers for HDTV before we’d provide them for education? Take my TV, please!

HT: Slashdot

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.