Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Genius On Hold

What's a good progressive to do? You wanna make this compelling documentary about how a brilliant inventor was driven to a life of crime by a monopoly, but it was progressives who created the monopoly in the first place using the same argument they always do: Wise, good-hearted experts can serve the public better than the free market can, so it's okay for the government to destroy business in the name of this noble goal.

Well, if you're Gregory Marquette and the movie is Genius On Hold, you bookend your otherwise compelling documentary by editorializing about a tenuous connection to the current economic crisis in a way that emphasizes evil big corporations and every President from Reagan to W, making sure to omit Obama completely, except when you're having the great Frank Langella narrate pleasing platitudes. (And, I'm not kidding, one of these glowing pix is with Obama and the late, unlamented Hugo Chavez.)

Eh. It's not as irritating as it sounds because, by the end, the inescapable conclusion is that Big Business and Big Government work together to thwart freedom and justice.

In that sense, it's kind of heartening. I don't care if they ever admit they were wrong, as long as they eventually get to the right conclusion.

I've been meaning to review The Untouchables, as we just recently saw it, and as deliriously grand a movie as it is, I couldn't help but noticing that the good guys were operating on behalf of an oppressive government and ultimately get the bad guy through an abuse of government power. I mention this here because this tells another side of the same story in an entirely different milieu.

This is the story of Walter Shaw. But to understand his story, you need to know the story of AT&T and how their monopoly came to be: By the turn of the 20th century, there were bunches of telephone companies all over the country because AT&T sucked.

Not bein' snarky there. The initial monopoly (in the form of patents) granted Bell over the phone system ran out after 17 years, and he hadn't exactly covered the nation in telephone lines. Little companies covering more sparsely populated areas that Bell didn't deem profitable popped up—and were profitable. Bell having money, if nothing else, began to buy up those little services and consolidating.

But, you know, why bother with all that messy buying and selling, and dealing with recalcitrant little guys, and risking anti-trust lawsuits, when you can just get Congress to outlaw everyone else?

I wanted Marquette to draw a parallel with health care at this point, or at least with the damn post office. Too much to ask, of course, but it's maddening to sit there and listen to the same wrong arguments from a hundred years ago being used today.

But this is all prologue to Walter Shaw. Shaw, a man with a 9th grade education, starts working as a lineman with AT&T, running cable and getting paid by the foot. But he has an aptitude for electronics, and AT&T discovers this, educates and employs him in the legendary Bell Labs where he produces amazing gizmos.

Shaw just gets better and better, and ultimately all he wants is credit and a piece of the action. AT&T is willing to give him status and more money, but not crazy patent money, and certainly not credit.

Morons. But, of course, monopolies make companies stupid, which is a lesson I don't think any corporation has ever learned.

When they can't reach an agreement, Shaw goes independent—but wait, he can't! It's against the freakin' law to hook anything up to AT&T's wires that AT&T doesn't allow.

Let that sink in for a while, especially if you're a youngster who thinks that the current company going by the name "AT&T" is any relation to this older one. The force of the US government was used to keep people from attaching devices to wires in their own homes even if those devices had no impact on AT&T's services.

Unable to make a living, Shaw finds customers who have special needs and aren't as sensitive to legalities as your average person. To wit, he invents call forwarding—which seems like an innocuous thing now, but was less so in this context: Making it so that when the cops smashed down the door to your bookmaking ring they found no one there.

That's right: Call forwarding was first used to hide gangsters from cops.

This brings me back to The Untouchables: It rankles that the full force and power of the government is used to stop people from gambling, and to stop them from operating unauthorized phone equipment. At least the latter isn't true any more.

It's pretty outrageous, like getting four years for allegedly making four illegal toll-free calls. Remind you of current copyright cases where you can get fined a bazillion dollars for downloading a song? It should.

Making the story even more fascinating is that Shaw's son (known as "Teal") ends up really pissed both at his dad and society in general, and determines to make the world pay. Also, he's grown up around mobsters.

Government creates crime and destroys lives. Extraordinary tale though this is, it's repeated in smaller ways thousands of times over. The movie gives us a few examples of others who were destroyed AT&T acting irrationally, even to where they'd enlist government agencies to shut down their own customers if they felt those customers posed a threat.

Besides making companies stupid, monopolies make them senile.

The movie's one cogent "big picture" idea is noting that Fascism, which was Italy's take on socialism, is all about tying Big Government to Big Business. While it credits Reagan with the AT&T breakup, it also make sure that every time financial corporatism comes up, Bush and Cheney were on screen. And, of course, it doesn't mention General Motors, General Electric or any other of the current President's favorite cronies.

But I regard it as a quibble, even if it did make me gripe out loud at the time: If we can just get to the point where we agree that every time we sanctify a business or industry with legislation, corruption and loss of freedom will result, and stagnation will settle on that field like a death shroud, I'll be a happy, happy camper.

The Boy and The Flower enjoyed the film, except probably the parts where I was griping, and it is not padded out much (apart from the aforementioned bookends). Definitely interesting and worthwhile.

1 comment:

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