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Bread and circuses

I was intrigued to read this week that sometime pre-1989 a Soviet official asked the British economist Paul Seabright this question: Who is in charge of London's bread supply?. The official was, I found elsewhere, eager to understand how to create a market economy.

Granted, bread isn't quite the staple it once was - blame the low-carb folks - but what a question! It's immediately comprehensible why someone who is used to a centrally planned economy would be shocked and terrified by the notion that a Commissioner of Bread is not needed to ensure that sufficient nutrition, like rain, falls adequately into people's lives. Especially if that person is in charge of a large, populous country with a history of inadequate supplies. And yet, amazingly, most of us take it for granted: bread happens. On the rare occasion when it doesn't, we eat something else.

Those who study the development of the Internet will find it easy to draw analogies. The centrally planned economy is like the legacy telephone networks; the Internet's cooperative design supplies bread - or at least bits - to all sorts of unexpected people on an ad hoc basis without anyone's needing to plan the number of bits or their delivery time. The pioneers who built the Internet's basic framework foresaw, at least in a small way, that there would be battles over copyright, privacy, censorship, and control, though they may not have fully understood the effects of scale. As noted in at a historical event in early July, they had to be ingenious about bypassing the various rules that might have stopped their efforts.

Many of the net.wars covered here are about exactly this collision between those who want to impose central planning and those who want the Internet to stay open as infrastructure and facilitator. So much goes into the taken-for-granted infrastructure that supports that ad hoc delivery: transport networks, communications, expertise, payments, and, somewhere far from the bread on my table, farmers. The Internet has benefited similarly. As Paulina Borsook pointed out in 1996 in Cyberselfish, modern Silicon Valley denizens are "the inheritors of the greatest government subsidy of technology and expansion in technical education the planet has ever seen; and like the ungrateful adolescent offspring of immigrants who have made it in the new country, they take for granted the richness of the environment in which they have flourished, and resent the hell out of the constraints that bind them. And, like privileged, spoiled teenagers everywhere, they haven't a clue what their existence would be like without the bounty showered on them."

Fade in on this week's US government shutdown, in which a small Republican faction are holding the entire country to ransom. Some of the comments about this are staggering: the libertarian who thinks people shouldn't be forced to buy health insurance if they "choose" not to, and the numbers who seem to think the shutdown is a good thing because there's too much government and this will show people we need it a whole lot less than we think. Or maybe that the federal government has its fingers in all sorts of pies it should divest and this will get the public pushing for them to do just that. I'm not quite sure. What I am sure about is that the damage will be profound, long-lasting, and destructive, beginning with international fiscal trust and probably ending with the US's having choked off some of its best science. And we can't solve it by making government more like the Internet, and routing around the damage. (Note that while the Internet at large survives unaffected, most government Web sites have shut down for the duration.)

Many of my British friends are baffled as to why nationalized health insurance is such a contentious issue in the US. One answer is that it's about class: if health insurance is a perk of a "good job", having it provided proves you're a high achiever. A second, however, is that big employers know that losing access to health benefits is such a potent threat that it keeps employees in line. In other words, health insurance tied to employment has turned the American middle class into peasants. It is horrifyingly feudal - and some business interests are quite happy with that.

"The thing is," someone English said to me this week, "our government evolved. Yours was actually *designed* to work like this." That's not really quite true: no one intended to design severe dysfunction.

Government-defining constitutions read like responses to past threats; they are reactive, like security plans. The threat model when the US constitution was written was a powerful, persecuting king, not disgruntled politicians who put ideology ahead of national interest. Further, the Founding Fathers were no better than the rest of us at imagining threats that didn't yet exist - such as giant multinational corporations with government-sized resources. If the threat model had included the idea that 40 politicians could become a central point of failure the design might have included a feedback mechanism by which they could be, in the immortal words of the 1982 movie Tootsie, zapped in the badoobies.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted throughout the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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