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Is Obama this century's Hayes?

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There are many ways to describe those who fear encroaching technology: Luddites, technophobes and, incorrectly, President Rutherford B. Hayes. To Hayes is attributed a technophobia so intense that he allegedly questioned the value of having a telephone in the White House Oval Office.

However, Hayes deserves a bit more credit for recognizing the potential of communications and information technology than the White House's current occupant and his administration.

Before we set Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine to the 1870s to defend Hayes' record, let's observe the current landscape. On President Barack Obama's watch, bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice have turned up their noses at the current state of competitive technologies in the United States.

The FCC and FTC exacted ridiculous demands from Comcast and NBCUniversal as grounds for administrative approval of the two companies' merger in 2011, including requiring the reservation of broadcast space for racially diverse programming.

Obama's three-headed Luddite Hydra next struck at a proposed merger of T-Mobile and AT&T, claiming it would be more competitive to let the former die on the vine than to allow the latter to bottle it. The merger was necessary for AT&T to attain valuable spectrum possessed by T-Mobile, but Obama's agencies gave the enterprise a thumbs down.

And speaking of spectrum, the FCC still sits on a treasure trove of it as officials there wring their hands over how best it can be auctioned off to ensure competitiveness -- once again, by excluding the nation's largest carriers in favor of startups. Not only does this punish the success of companies that have been serving wireless customers successfully for the past 25 years, but it also does little to help the customers who need more spectrum to operate smartphones and apps.

Both Obama and the Senate have doubled down on the FCC, FTC and DOJ mischief by thwarting an FCC reform bill, which Obama has declared he would veto should it ever arrive on his desk. The bill, which already has passed the House, seeks only to increase the regulatory agency's transparency -- a mantra oft chanted in Obama's 2008 election campaign -- and prevent the FCC from making up new rules, as opposed to enforcing those passed by Congress.

Keep in mind the FCC's not supposed to create rules from nothing anyway, but that didn't stop Obama's team from adopting so-called "network neutrality" regulations in December 2010, despite an April 2010 ruling by a U.S. District Court that they could not do so. The cost of fighting rules created by nonelected government officials is borne by the companies and their customers, while the cost to defend them is shouldered by taxpayers.

President Hayes' alleged technophobia makes for a nice cultural meme, except that it's not true. It seems Obama's speechwriters picked it up from a 1985 speech by Ronald Reagan, who had employed the apocryphal story as a setup for the punch line: "I thought at the time that he might be mistaken."

In fact, the current president and his followers would be well-served to follow Hayes' example. It was during the Hayes administration that Thomas Edison demonstrated the phonograph at the White House and that typewriters debuted in an official government capacity. As for that mischievous phone, Hayes did indeed have one installed. He was given "1" as his phone number.

Bruce Edward Walker (bwalker@heartland.org) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News.

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