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The change is significant for the right to carry on economic activity without government intervention, but few television viewers are expected to be noticing, as a result, any big difference in what they are watching. That's because, as the New York Times reported, most television stations had been exceeding the old FCC standards-for commercial, not regulatory, reasons.
"No, '60 Minutes' isn't about to be replaced by reruns of The Gong Show.' Nor are viewers likely to face a rash of more ads for frozen chicken patties and antacids," the New York Times editorialized. "Indeed, this deregulation will demonstrate how ineffectual regulation has been."
On the whole, the Times took a position somewhat sympathetic to free-market principles. "There is no good argument, therefore, for Government's staying in the business of dictating private television schedules," it said. "Programming constrained by popular taste may not please everyone, but regulation isn't likely to improve it." The Times even suggested that "free-enterprise logic" implies that broadcasters should pay for using the air waves (although seeing this as a quid pro quo for being "allowed" to make a profit, rather than a natural mechanism for allocating a scarce resource among competing users).
Others were not so sympathetic to the Fee's reforms as the Times was. "Totally unjustified," Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) called the changes. "Fraudulent, disgraceful and dreadful policy," cried Henry Geller, formerly with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and now with the Washington Center for Public Policy Research. "Outrageous," fumed Beverly Chain of the United Church of Christ's Office of Communications, which has challenged in court some of the FCC's major radio-deregulation measures and "almost certainly" will challenge the new reforms, as well.
It's easy to see why the United Church of Christ and its brethren in the "public interest" lobby are so irate: the sanctity of one of their most lucrative boondoggles is no more. As the Times observed, "Eliminating the 'public service' requirement may mean fewer hours of religious broadcasts." Sic transit gloria pork barrel. Meanwhile, earthly viewers can rejoice that a constellation of meddlesome regulations has come to an end, and broadcasting is much closer to a free market.
NASA'S SPACE STATION COMES UNDER FIRE
Although many space enthusiasts have cheered President Reagan's commitment to a permanent, manned space station, there is growing doubt about how such a goal should be achieved-and at what cost.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has proposed an $8-billion program to build such a station. But Eric Drexler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an article in last January's L-5 News, pointed out that to justify that huge expenditure, NASA is essentially proposing to reinvent the wheel. The agency's Marshall Space Flight Center has claimed that in order to build a station, major technological advances are needed across the board: in propulsion, materials, sensors, solar arrays, mass memories, energy storage, millimeter-wave systems, and even "trash management." Drexler, and a number of other non-NASA space technologists, counter that an effective space station could be built with essentially off-the-shelf hardware, for a fraction of NASA's gargantuan budget.
Lending support to this assertion is a 1975 McDonnell Douglas space-station design study, unearthed by Commercial Space Report editor Tom Brosz. That detailed study proposed building two space stations, each about three-quarters the size of NASA's proposed new station, for an equivalent cost in today's dollars of $2.5 billion-about one-third NASA's proposed budget.
Most recently, Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) completed a study of NASA's space-station plans and reached many of the same conclusions. NASA's approach is by far the most expensive way of producing a space station, says the OTA, because NASA insists on developing everything from scratch. But as the study notes, private firms are already developing systems that can carry out a number of the space station's functions, either independently or as possible space-station modules-for example, Fairchild's unmanned Lease-craft space platform; the low-cost, unmanned West German spas pallet satellite; and the Space Industries pressurized (but not permanently manned) space manufacturing facility. The OTA study suggests that NASA may be stuck in a sort of time warp, still trying to live out the glory days when only government invested money in space and therefore NASA was the be-all and end-all of space development.
MIT's Drexler takes more the view of a public-choice economist, pointing out that it is very much in NASA's interest to come up with an $8-billion gargantua, to keep all its laboratories and contractors employed as expenditures for developing the space shuttle wind down. What's interesting to observe in all of this is the growing recognition, even within the pro-space, high-tech community, that NASA's way is neither the only nor the best way anymore.
CLEARING THE RUNWAY FOR PRIVATE AIRPORTS
"A diminished federal role need not jeopardize the adequacy of airport service nationwide." So concludes a recent Congressional Budget Office study, "Financing U.S. Airports in the 1980s." The CBO study examined planned federal aid for airport construction-$6.4 billion through 1990 (in 1982 dollars)-and the consequences of various reductions in such aid, including total elimination.
The study noted three reasons why federal aid could be ended without imperiling the nation's airport system: (1) major commercial airports (71 of which handle about 90 percent of all commercial travel) are regarded as sound investments in the private capital markets; (2) of the 3,203 airports now qualifying for federal construction grants, only 708 are of national, rather than local, significance; and (3) if airports set user charges based on costs rather than by present, bureaucratically determined, criteria-as a withdrawal of aid would force many to do-airport congestion would be largely relieved, thus decreasing the need for airport expansion and construction.
That airports are basically commercial enterprises and can be so operated is evident in a recent study published by the London-based Adam Smith Institute, "Airports for Sale: The Case for Competition." Prepared by economist Sean Barrett of Trinity College in Dublin, the study shows how privatization of Britain's airports could increase competition among airports (thus putting downward pressure on airport charges and hence on fares), increase airport efficiency, widen consumer choices, reduce political interference in airport operations, and lead to better decisions about investment in construction and expansion of airports.