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Voting Hypocrisy

The Demand for a Vote is Hypocritical—But Revealing

“Let the people vote” proclaims Cox, et en Français: « Laissez le peuple voter! »

The problem with this noble sentiment is that Cox has no intention of honoring the principle themselves. They don’t consider voting a good way to make decisions. Exploring what they do take into account is revealing.

It’s hypocrisy. Hypocritical is what it’s called when someone pretends to have admirable principles that the evidence shows they don’t actually possess. And Cox does not share the principles of the American or French revolutions--quite the contrary. Cox and BellSouth believe that the people should accept that crucial decisions about their future will be made, not by local people familiar with local problems who are concerned for their neighbors and their common future, but by people in foreign lands—in this case Atlanta—acting, not in the local people’s best interest, but in their own interest. And their interest is defined solely by the amount of money they can realize from the community over a relatively short time. That is harsh. But it’s true.

And it's not just something I say. It’s something they say.

At about 2:05 (on my recording device) in to the “Academic” Broadband Forum (report) staged by Cox and Bell South and replayed endlessly on channel 14, Doug Menefee asks “one real quick question:” “If the Lafayette community were to vote and 51% or greater were to say ‘We have a demand and we want fiber to the home,’ would BellSouth, Cox, and the other telecom providers be able to commit to providing those services to us?” A long rambling response on the part of both BellSouth’s Oliver and Cox’s Cassard ensued, with both men insisting that they could meet any real demand for services. But Cassard expressed their attitude clearly: “There is no need to do a vote in my opinion, because I could meet your needs today.” In the follow-up attempt to get the teleco execs to respond to the question about a community vote for fiber, Oliver remarked that such a vote “doesn’t create a demand for fiber for telecommunication services.” At that point Menefee correctly characterized their response as meaning that telecom companies would not being willing to provide a fiber network “until it was based on their terms.” They both tried to soften their positions but would not say that they would respond to the will of the people.

Their call to make a public vote the standard by which this community decides for or against fiber is pure hypocrisy. They pretend to principles that they do not have. As they make clear, they have other standards for making their decisions.

In all fairness, they really can’t take our vote into account. What they do take into account is revealing—both about what motivates large, "place-less" corporations and what motivates small organizations that are rooted in a place.

What motivates giants like BellSouth and Cox is less mean-spiritedness than modern, large-corporation politics. Let’s think about it for a minute: both Cox and BellSouth are publicly-traded shareholder-owned companies. As such they are not only driven to maximize profits, but doing so is effectively a legal requirement—and there is little of the sense of personal responsibility found in smaller operations and little of the sense of loyalty to place that restrains smaller, more rooted corporations from simply charging as much as they can in return for as little as possible. Maximizing profits is called good stewardship—as a manager, you must act in the owner’s best interests. You are required to be a “good steward” of other people’s property. Not doing so is grounds for suit. And shareholder suit is possibly the sort of legal consequence modern managers of large corporations most fear. Stewardship outside the corporate world is a pretty honorable concept, as both committed Christians and committed conservationists among our readership will know. But it’s a little questionable in today’s corporate world. There the concept of being a good steward has degenerated into propping up stock prices—and ignoring other values. “Good” management at large modern corporations is mostly about keeping the stock price moving up. That and little else determines whether top management is considered a success or a failure. There is a problem with that even for corporations: the long-term health of the corporation is not the first concern of modern managers. Wise long-term capital investments are risky—not for the company but for its management, since such investments depress the current value of the company.

But such “stewardship” is an even greater problem for the communities that these companies are supposed to serve. Large corporations no longer have much interest in building markets, creating demand, or developing communities. Their interests lie pretty brutally in extracting short-term profit. That, and that alone, keeps stock prices moving up. This over-emphasis on today’s profit is not a problem of all businesses, I hasten to say. In our own state, smaller businesses that are locally owned and are closely tied to one or a few communities demonstrate that the traditional role of locally-owned businesses is not dead. Eatel and Kaplan telephone are both examples of local telecommunications companies that have shown that they recognize that their long-term interests are best served by investing in their communities. Both companies have found ways to make modern telecommunications happen for their communities. The Eatel president says in an Advocate article:

"Over the last 130 years, telephone companies have relied on copper, and we've spent a lot of money trying to make that copper do more. So, we can provide DSL service over copper today…Now we've decided it would be better to provide fiber to the home and let that take us out for the next 40 to 50 years."

Family-owned and dependent on regional development for its own growth, Eatel is in a position to make the wise, and obvious, business decision. It is obvious and reasonable to pay for necessary infrastructure now if the alternative is to pay for more expensive piecemeal upgrades later. Putting that decision off only delays the day that you have to commit to the inevitable large capital. Spending more now saves you money in the long run and gives you a valuable leg up on the competition. Eatel’s managers are judged by what they do to promote the long-term health of the company, and in a company that is dependent on local development, promoting the long-term health of the communities they serve and depend on is good business.

But the managers of BellSouth and Cox simply play by a different standard. And that standard does not lead to the long view or much concern over whether a particular locality is prosperous in the future or not. For them a fiber network for Lafayette is risky, not because it isn’t a wise business decision for the long run but because it wouldn’t immediately lead to greater profits in the short run. It's just too expensive—local profits would have to fall for a while. And that’s not acceptable to headquarters, especially when they realize that piecemeal upgrades are a safe way to keep profits high in the near term. They won’t take such risks until they determine “based on their own terms” that fiber in Lafayette will return a greater profit in the first few years after it is installed than would less expensive, if still costly, piecemeal upgrades.

Sure, it could be argued that uncertainties, regulatory uncertainties, technological uncertainties, vague uncertainties of all sorts can be called into play to justify “caution” and going for near-term profit. But the underlying dynamic driving the decisions of our incumbents is different from that of a company like Eatel...and it is different from the dynamic that drives LUS in the provision of its utilities
. In those cases, investing in the local community makes sense to management.

Cox’s demand that the people vote is pure hypocrisy. They won’t, maybe they can’t, take what the people of Lafayette want and need into account. A vote for fiber wouldn’t make a bit of difference to them. And it is hypocritical for them to demand that which they do not value.

posted: 8/04; updated: 3/11/05

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