From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.

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On the Effects of Brown

August 12, 2017

To make it available on the web, I am posting this commentary originally aired on Dec. 10, 2003 together with a note describing the literature:

ON THE EFFECTS OF BROWN
Steve Gottlieb

It is easy to forget how recent are the pathologies that so many of us now routinely associate with black “ghettos”.

My dad taught music in a high school in Brooklyn. Because of the way music was handled, he had almost everyone who came through the school in his classes. When the district boundaries were changed in the early 60s he reacted with relief. The black kids who now came to the school were much easier to handle than the white toughs who now went to other schools.

In my youth black leather jackets were much scarier than black skin.

I am suggesting that the pathologies we associate with poor black ghettos are a product of the past half century.

Before Brown v. Board there was an entirely separate black economy. Riots and lynchings made it a dangerous world for blacks. But you could have all your needs taken care of without ever stepping outside of the black community from hair cuts to a plot in a cemetery. There were black doctors and black hospitals, black stores and black insurance companies. Some black communities were quite successful. Jealous whites burned the black district in Tulsa among others. Slaves had been trained in all the needed skills and one looked to their descendents until poorer whites forceably ejected them after the Civil War. In that black economy, however limited, blacks were masters in their own house.

By the time of Brown, large changes were affecting the black community. Blacks came north for jobs that had been opened by World War II. They moved into cities near those jobs.

Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration built the roads that opened up the suburbs. That led to an exodus. We burned a lot of gas in our old 1937 Chevy getting to old friends who’d moved out.

But the Federal Housing Administration red-lined the suburbs. That is, if you were white, you could have your mortgage guaranteed. If you were black, you were not welcome. The suburbs from their origins were lily white not because of white flight from blacks but because a house in the country had been an American dream which whites, but not blacks, were now able to realize.

They couldn’t move to the suburbs, and going all the way back to the time of Brown, what was variously called urban renewal or slum clearance tore down blacks’ homes in the cities. Blacks just called it “Negro clearance.” What happened to all those black businesses? When the government seizes property it has to pay just compensation. But only to the property owners. It assumes that lessees, i.e. most businesses, can get equivalent value elsewhere, that nothing is destroyed. But of course if the business is dependent on the neighborhood trade, it loses what we lawyers call good will and businesses call it loyal customers. As businesses were forced out, they had to start over, on the ground floor.

Minority-owned “mom-and-pop” businesses declined by half from 1960 to 1980.

Storied neighborhoods, live with business and social networks, are simply gone. Torn down to make way for offices and white owned stores. And then deserted even by the whites because there was no neighborhood left to support them – people had gone to the suburbs or been pushed out for “renewal.”

Now add Brown into the mix. all those blacks who had been shopping inside the black community could shop at Woolworth’s and other national businesses. So another economic prop was pulled out from under the black community.

Integration was not an unmixed blessing. Whole industries in the black economy disappeared and, with them, much of the capital that had been amassed. Working in the white economy meant starting the ladder at the bottom, playing by white rules and customs, and insisting on white good faith in hiring, training, educating and promoting blacks.

Ten years after Brown, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 including provisions relating to equal employment, housing, public accommodations and government programs. Then the battle started in earnest with some defendants fighting decade long legal battles to avoid having to do anything. That was when courts started to employ the same remedies that they had for schools, telling defendants that they had talked the talk long enough and now they were going to have to do the behavior. Those orders are the origins of affirmative action.

I don’t want to make the claim that everything was better before Brown. I have lived through that transition and I know better. But I get very depressed when people claim that the black community has not shown the pluck and ingenuity and savvy and dedication to self-help that other immigrant groups have. On the contrary, they followed precisely that pattern until the fruits were systematically pulled out from under them.
—-
For a brief biliography on resegregation after Brown v. Board, see Stephen E. Gottlieb, Robin L. West, Brian Bix and Timothy D. Lytton, JURISPRUDENCE, CASES AND MATERIALS: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF LAW AND ITS APPLICATIONS, 3rd. ed., 940n (LexisNexis, 2015):

Melvin L. Oliver & Thomas M. Shapiro, BLACKWEALTH/WHITEWEALTH: A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON RACIAL INEQUALITY 17-18, 51-52, 150, 174 (1995) (tracing the continued impact of FHA’s racial preference in enhanced white wealth today); Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A. Denton, AMERICAN APARTHEID: SEGREGATION AND THE MAKING OF THE UNDERCLASS 54-55 (1993) (summarizing FHA’s role in imposing residential segregation); Kenneth T. Jackson, CRABGRASS FRONTIER: THE SUBURBANIZATION OF THE UNITED STATES 203-15 (1985) (describing how “FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy”); FlorenceWagman Roisman, The Lessons of American Apartheid: The Necessity and Means of Promoting Residential Racial Integration, 81 IOWA L. REV. 479, 486 (1995) (review of Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A. Denton, AMERICAN APARTHEID (“the massive new housing production fueled by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) financing of suburban areas was a major cause of increased segregation”) (citing Charles Abrams, FORBIDDEN NEIGHBORS: A STUDY OF PREJUDICE IN HOUSING 229-37 (1955)) (“FHA adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremberg Laws”). See also National Comm’n on Urban Problems, BUILDING THE AMERICAN CITY 101 (1969) (concluding that “There was evidence of a tacit agreement among all groups—lending institutions, fire insurance companies, and FHA — to block off certain areas of cities within ‘red lines,’ and not to loan or insure within them” but later studies cited above found considerable and explicit documentation).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Gottlieb is Professor at Albany Law School. His most recent book is Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. This commentary was broadcast December 10, 2003.


Polarizing America

January 31, 2017

I’d like to give my spleen a break for a week and talk about some of the dynamics that are polarizing  America, that neither side can solve because the problem is structural. Law has contributed with crucial changes regarding political parties, the media, the draft and residential segregation (which Brown did not prevent). I’d love to hear good suggestions for countering the polarizing effects of those legal changes.[i]

Primaries originally broke up state monopoly parties. We’ve long known that primary elections push candidates apart to appeal to their parties’ most committed voters. After 1968 the primary system became the exclusive method for nominating presidents, pushing the parties further apart.

In broadcasting, three networks controlled radio and television until Congress changed copyright rules, allowing cable television expansion to over a hundred channels, and niche broadcasting to separate audiences. The courts and Federal Communications Commission also killed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Then Congress made it almost impossible to hold any internet company responsible for even the most outrageous falsehoods published on their systems. Those media law changes made it unnecessary to pay any attention to opposing views. Plus, instead of limiting damages for defamation, as Justice Marshall suggested, the Court gave media much more complete protection.

At the Federal Housing Administration, officials long refused to insure mortgages to African-Americans, regardless of income. That prevented African-Americans from joining the march to the suburbs, drove disinvestment in their existing neighborhoods, and pushed us apart.

The end of the draft has been huge. The military had drafted people without regard to wealth, class, or geography. President Teddy Roosevelt said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[2] And indeed the soldiers came home with lifelong buddies from all over America. Arguments about the Vietnam war ended the draft and led to the so-called volunteer army, which doesn’t reach the same cross-section of America. That changed our attitudes toward each other, and how polarized we’ve become.

There were good reasons for the changes to the nominating system, the media, and the draft but the combined price has been to polarize us. Polarization matters. It blocks our ability to listen to each other, even to care about each other. And if we can’t care, the very notion of public welfare, what’s good for all of us, seems like self-pleading.

The market can’t pick up the slack; it fails in many ways. Worse, for market ideologues, democracy, the major counterforce to the market, seems illegitimate. In other words, the stakes are huge – the legacy of our Revolution, our Constitution, and our collective welfare. Somehow, we have to break down polarization, and restore what used to bring us together or find substitutes – for public schools, military service, media that reached across aisles, and integrated housing and communities.

I doubt the cat can be put back in the bag, especially in this polarized environment, but I’d love to hear good suggestions.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 31, 2017. For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[1] For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[2] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America from the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


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