Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Obama Phones" and Altruism

On Monday several conservative talk show hosts were in a tizzy over a "new" program from Obama. According to these talking heads, Obama is now using tax money to provide free cell phones to welfare recipients. KTRH radio reports the following:

Low income Americans may have new rights under an old federal program. Welfare recipients and those who meet certain income requirements will be able to get a cell phone and free minutes through a modified federal program. David Williams with Citizens Against Government Waste is outraged. "Right now, it looks like it's being completely government funded."
This would be an outrage, if it were true. But it isn't, at least as it is being presented by the talk show hosts. And it would be rather easy for them to discover this fact. The program, which was mandated by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is funded by telecommunications companies. From the FCC web site:
All telecommunications service providers and certain other providers of telecommunications must contribute to the federal USF based on a percentage of their interstate and international end-user telecommunications revenues. These companies include wireline phone companies, wireless phone companies, paging service companies, and certain Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers.

Of course, these "contributions" are extracted at the point of a gun, and amount to a tax on telecommunications providers. Unless...

Some consumers may notice a “Universal Service” line item on their telephone bills. This line item appears when a company chooses to recover its USF contributions directly from its customers by billing them this charge.
Whether a company recovers the "universal service" as a line item or build it into their pricing structure, the fact remains that consumers are paying this fee. And since this "fee" is imposed by the government, for all intents and purposes it is a tax, albeit a hidden tax.

I can only speculate as to the reason conservatives are presenting this in the manner they are. (The extension of the program to cell phones is new, but that is merely a detail.) My suspicion is that they see it as another opportunity to malign Obama, though there is already no shortage of such opportunities. Regardless of their motivation, they are ignoring the real issue. Host Michael Berry asked his listeners:

Is being wireless a want or a need?

Apparently, if cell phones are a "want" they Berry has a problem with this program. But if cell phones are a "need" then it is a different issue. We should provide for "needs" but not for "wants". And this is the heart of the issue.

According to altruism--which conservatives embrace as eagerly as liberals--one man's need is a claim on others. If one man has a need, others are responsible for providing that need. This is true in regard to food, shelter, health care, and cell phones. Refusing to question altruism, conservatives can only whine that cell phones are not a need.

So long as they refuse to question altruism conservatives will remain powerless to stop the growth of government. They can only argue that a particular program goes "too far" or a particular claim is not truly a need. They cannot defend individual liberty on moral grounds, because they have ceded morality to their opponents.

The issue is not whether cell phones are a need or a want. The issue is that such programs violate individual rights by forcing individuals to act contrary to their own rational judgment.

Until conservatives reject altruism they cannot defend individual rights. Until they reject the premise that the individual must live in service to others, they cannot defend the moral right of the individual to pursue his own values and interests. Until they reject altruism, they will remain accessories to the crime.


Burgess Laughlin said...

1. has a Q and A on the "Obama phone" --

2. As you say, conservatives must give up the ethical principle of altruism. But I would suggest they will never do that until they give up the foundations of altruism: mysticism (faith and tradition) and supernaturalism (God).

Brian Phillips said...

I found several other sites with similar information. As I said, it is quite easy to get the facts, if that is what one wants.

I agree that until conservatives abandon mysticism they will not abandon altruism. Nor will they be interested in the facts.

Rodney Driver said...

I don't know why the Safelink program keeps being referred to as the "Obama Phone". It has been around for a while now, although now it is gaining a lot of exposure. I actually know someone who had the phone since last year (this is an elderly person now, with limited income who barely uses the phone). Since he had it since last year, Obama could not possibly have been responsible for it. I know Tracfone was developing it for a while and launched it around last year. It provides 60 minutes and a free phone only to those who are eligible. Definitely check it out if you have the time.

Brian Phillips said...

Rodney-- I think I addressed why people keep referring to it as "Obama phones". It is an attempt to slam Obama, even if the facts are not on their side. Even if the critics are wrong on that part, I think that it is a horrible program, no matter who thought of it.

Reel Manny said...

This is a travesty and it doesn’t matter who started it, the govt shouldn’t be giving away our money to “poor” people!

I’m also concerned about the program expanding! I hear that Virgin Mobile will be starting up their own version of this, using taxpayer dollars. WTF???

Brian Phillips said...

Reel Manny-- I agree that who started this isn't the real issue. My point is that conservatives look for any "reason" to bash Obama, and the actual facts aren't important.

Ali Blabber said...

I love how some people refer to the Safelink program as "an Obama phone."


The program's been in effect for 25 years and finally recognizes the reality of cell phones as a viable option for communication.

And the phones themselves are cheap, low-end devices, but the right wing echo chamber rails against this because of the perception that cell phones are somehow "luxuries."


EnufZNuf said...

I didn't have a problem with the so-called "Obama Phone."

It seemed reasonable to give poor people a cheap phone and a few minutes a month.

Go find a job. Go to the doctor. Get the car fixed. Whatever.

But now, Virgin Mobile has a new program that gives poor people 200 minutes a month.


It's too much!

What's next? Iphones? Blackberries?

Virgin is using taxpayer money extravagantly.

Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

Cell phones are a luxury. Word of mouth is free. A luxury is anything that is not required for life. To require access to anything that is not required for life is an burden to anyone who pays taxes through legitimate employment. Anyone who gains deliberate support through social bias is not in any particular position to claim altruism. Therefore any support for free cell phone access is not alruism.

Cell phones are a luxury. There are many capitalist avenues through which anyone can have phone access. Those avenues require that an individual obtain income and, in many cases, pay taxes.

I am an American born citizen of Mexican heritage who pays taxes and worked for many years to reach a position where I could afford a cell phone. I got along just fine without it. My mother is happier now that I can call her any any time to assure her that I am OK. But I worked my ass off to get into a position where I could afford this luxury. Otherwise I would have to purchase a calling card to be able to call her.

Let this be said now. Free is not free. Someone pays for it. If you would like to pay for cell phone access for someone who doesn't contribute, them instead buy them a loaf of bread or some ground beef. These are things we need to survive, not a text message machine!!