Every one of us, I suspect, can name one or two things that have no reason to exist and yet somehow are still around. I'm going to stop at two, I promise.

1. The whole idea of "long-distance" telephone calls.
Back in 1915, when Alexander Graham Bell placed the first transcontinental phone call — from New York, to his old associate Thomas Watson in San Francisco — it took five intermediary operators, working over a 23-minute period, to make the connection. All those people had to be paid, of course. Area codes were assigned in the 1940s; it became possible to dial these things yourself in the 1950s. But the existing system, cash cow that it had become, was deemed sacred, even as it became ridiculous. The woman who eventually became my wife used to work at a store in Penn Square, a shopping center in north Oklahoma City; at the time, she was living in Midwest City, a suburb about six miles to the southeast of OKC. By the tariffs of the day, from her house to her workplace was a long-distance call. Eventually, the "toll-free" area was widened a bit, from a few square miles to a few thousand, but before this could happen, the phone company had to be guaranteed a replacement for the income they were losing.

But here's where it gets interesting. Earlier this year, a proposal was floated to extend that toll-free area to the entire state, and said phone company issued the following statement:

"What concerns us most is that the government would be mandating another new fee on consumers' bills while eliminating an abundance of choice. Landline and wireless consumers would be charged more than $100 million a year for something that most don't want, need or use."

The "abundance of choice," as it happens, stems entirely from the fact that there exist several companies allowed to play in the long-distance sandbox, and all of them want their individual ounces of flesh. And God help you if you don't name a long-distance carrier and inadvertently dial someone who isn't in your area.

The workaround is simple: use your cell phone. They don't care about long distance; they care about minutes, period. Eventually land lines, if there are any left, will be priced along this same model. But don't wait up for toll-free calling throughout Oklahoma; that proposal has been shelved for at least the rest of the year.

2. The Department of Education. Actually, any number of Federal agencies could have been slotted here, but ED gets the nod because it hits the trifecta: dubious Constitutionality, lack of any useful authority, and utter fecklessness by its opponents. When ED was spun off from HEW during the Carter administration, the Republican minority in Congress grumbled a bit, but nothing more; Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech in 1982 called for defunding the department out of existence, and that was the last anyone heard of that proposal, despite echoes in various GOP platforms in succeeding years. George W. Bush actually expanded ED with that "No Child Left Behind" stuff, part of his Compassionate Codswallop stance.

Apart from that laughable history, ED has nothing to recommend itself: it oversees Federal funding for education, which isn't supposed to be done in the first place — that pesky Constitution again, plus the desire by empire-builders to mess with a deliberately-decentralized system for their own sake — and it watches over civil-rights concerns, which could be done just as clumsily at Justice. The current "Race to the Top" scheme manages to combine the worst of two present-day Federal obsessions, centralization and "stimulus" spending; it's about as meaningful, in terms of actual benefit to society, as a Chevy dealer's "We must sell 30 cars this weekend!" campaign.

Then again, the Feds own Chevrolet, don't they?

The Vent

  25 April 2010

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