David Warsh: A way to change tech giants' behavior?

Google headquarters, in Mountain View, California

Google headquarters, in Mountain View, California


“What is so rare as a day in June,’’ as New England poet James Russell Lowell wrote, or, for that matter, in May, in Somerville, Massachusetts? A genuinely powerful intellect, that’s what. Enough to elicit a weekly instead of a walk.

The most interesting thing I saw last week was A Tax to Fix Big Tech, an op-ed by economist Paul Romer in The New York Times, proposing a progressive tax on corporate revenues from sales of search advertising. “Putting a levy on targeted ad revenue would give Facebook and Google a real incentive to change their dangerous business models,” he wrote.

About those dangerous business models, Romer had little to say except that

It is the job of government to prevent a tragedy of the commons. That includes the commons of shared values and norms on which democracy depends. The dominant digital platform companies, including Facebook and Google, make their profits using business models that erode this commons. They have created a haven for dangerous misinformation and hate speech that has undermined trust in democratic institutions. And it is troubling when so much information is controlled by so few companies.

What is the best way to protect and restore this public commons? Most of the proposals to change platform companies rely on either antitrust law or regulatory action. I propose a different solution. Instead of banning the current business model – in which platform companies harvest user information to sell targeted digital ads –  new legislation could establish a tax that would encourage platform companies to shift toward a healthier, more traditional model.

He relied for a foil on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposals to break up big tech companies, using antitrust statutes or regulation. He wrote, “Existing antitrust law in the United States addresses mainly the harm from price gouging, not the other kinds of harm caused by these platforms, such as stifling innovation and undermining the institutions of democracy.”  And regulators and judges can be captured by clever lawyers and patient corporate lobbyists.  (Nothing here about the legislators who would enact and monitor the tax statutes and laws.)

There are several advantages to using tax legislation as a strategy, according to Romer. The tax he had in mind could apply to revenue from sales of targeted digital ads, the core businesses of Facebook, Google and other firms that make money monitoring users’ searches. “At the federal level, Congress could add it as a surcharge to the corporate income tax. At the state level, a legislature could adopt it as a type of sales tax on the revenue a company collects for displaying ads to residents of the state.”  Such a tax could be progressive, creating an impediment to growth through acquisition, and an incentive to periodic spin-offs, and thus greater competition. He added several FAQS the next day on his Web site about various tax aspects.

There was, alas, very little speculation about the new ad-free subscription models that might emerge as a means of avoiding taxes on targeted ad revenue, except to say that subscribers would be mindful of the privacy they obtained by avoiding the ever-more sophisticated surveillance of their habits by traditional search services, and subscription companies “could succeed the old-fashioned way: by delivering a service that is worth more than it costs.”

Along with countless others, I share Senator Warren and Nobel-laureate Romer’s sense that Facebook and Google and other big Internet firms have become highly undesirable corporate citizens in their current gigantic and highly profitable ad-supported form. Surely newspapers are among the “institutions of democracy” that would be strengthened by some governmental reshaping of advertising markets.

Those with long memories will recall that, as a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, Romer was the government’s expert in the remedy phase of the Justice Department’s successful (to that point) antitrust complaint against Microsoft Corp. His recommendation was to break the company into two competing firms – one selling its Windows operating systems, the other marketing software applications (including its highly profitable Office suite). The remedy was headed for implementation, until an appellate court sent the case back to a different judge. The election of George W. Bush mooted the issue; the Justice Department withdrew its complaint: a salutary victory against big business slipped away.

Romer had left research by then to start an online learning company.  In 2007 he quit Stanford altogether to work as a policy entrepreneur – a natural enough path for the son of a former governor of Colorado who had harbored national ambitions.  Romer spent several years advocating for “charter cities,” tax-favored enterprise zone in developing nations whose governance was to be somehow outsourced to independent authorities. Two attempts failed on the eve of what would have been their creation.  In 2010, he joined New York University’s Stern School of Business as a University Professor and for a time, director of NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.

In October 2016 he signed on as chief economist of the World Bank, with hopes of transforming its large and well-funded research department. Fifteen months later, he resigned, after a series of controversies with staff. By then he had come perilously close to gadfly status as a critic of macroeconomics. He could speak so freely, he explained, “because I am no longer an academic. I am a practitioner, by which I mean that I want to put useful knowledge to work. I care little about whether I ever publish again in leading economics journals or receive any professional honor because neither will be of much help to me in achieving my goals.”

The Nobel award last year, jointly with William Nordhaus, “for integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis,” rescued Romer from that limbo by certifying his stature. He married the same day he received the prize.  Since then, Romer has offered advice to incoming Word Bank President David Malpass, in an op-ed in the Financial Times (outsource the bank’s research function and concentrate on infrastructure planning and financial diplomacy instead), and, last week, the op-ed in the Times

Op-eds are only slightly better than TED talks.  But, as noted, really good ideas are rare. This one may be profound.  It deserves plenty of further study.

David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist, is proprietor of Somerville-based, where this column first ran.

Good news for brick and mortar

Vacant mall in Arizona, emptied by Amazon.

Vacant mall in Arizona, emptied by Amazon.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling (South Dakota v. Wayfair) that Internet retailers be made to collect sales taxes in states where they have no physical presence is good news for what’s left of physical stores and downtowns in many places. Because of earlier legal actions, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are unlikely to be affected much by the ruling.

The Government Accountability Office says that states were already collecting about 75 percent of the potential taxes from online purchases.  Still, the part not being taxed could be as much as $13 billion a year nationally.

It has been unfair that a god-awful 1992 ruling let online retailers based far away from most of their consumers avoid paying the local and state sales taxes needed to help pay for public services while stores that directly served local customers and employed local people have had to levy these taxes,  of course making their prices less competitive.

Kudos to the 40 states and the Trump administration for suing to overturn a ruling that both violated states’ rights and made for a very unlevel playing field for retailers.

Be fair to brick-and-mortar stores


From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' at

I hope that the U.S. Supreme Court reverses itself and decides that retailers on the Internet can be made to collect  state and local sales taxes in states where they have no physical presence. If somebody in a state buys something at a physical store in that state and has to pay its sales tax, it’s only fair that someone residing in the same state pay sales tax in buying the same product online.

The problem goes back to a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that spurred Internet shopping. That ruling, Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, said that the U.S. Constitution bars states from collecting sales taxes from enterprises that don’t have a physical presence in a state. But in these surreal times, more and more of us don’t seem to have a physical presence anywhere.

Internet retailers complain that collecting the taxes will be too complicated. But in a world where, for instance, social-media companies can micro-target customers with great precision, I’m sure ways can be found to efficiently manage the tax collection.

It has long struck me as bad public policy that physical stores (whose owners pay local property taxes and otherwise contribute to the local economy and civic life) must collect sales taxes from local consumers patronizing these establishments while  businesses living on computers far away don’t have to. Unfair advantage.

This inequity has deprived states of billions of dollars in tax revenue to pay for essential services and transportation and other physical infrastructure.


Razan Azzarkani: Don't let broadband companies control the Internet

Credit:  Ludovic.ferre  

Credit: Ludovic.ferre 


Think about the Web sites you visit. The movies you stream. The music you listen to online. The animal videos that are just too cute not to share.

Now think about the freedom to use the Internet however and whenever you choose being taken away from you. That’s exactly what Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs), are trying to do.

Right now, those companies are constrained by a principle called net neutrality — the so-called “guiding principle of the Internet.” It’s the idea that people should be free to access all the content available online without ISPs dictating how, when, and where that content can be accessed.

In other words, net neutrality holds that the company you pay for Internet access can’t control what you do online.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission adopted strong net neutrality rules that banned ISPs from slowing down connection speeds to competing services — e.g., Comcast can’t slow down content or applications specific to Verizon because it wants you to switch to their services — or blocking Web sites in an effort to charge individuals or companies more for services they’re already paying for.

But now the open Internet as we know it is under threat again. Net neutrality rules are in danger of being overturned by Donald Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai ,and such broadband companies as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

But these corporations aren’t doing this alone. They’re getting help from at least eight handpicked members of Congress, all Republicans (Speaker Paul Ryan being the most notable), who’ve signed statements of support for overturning the neutrality rules.

Why? All we need to do is follow the money.

These eight lawmakers have all received significant campaign contributions from these corporations. That means the big broadband corporations and their special interest groups are attempting — and succeeding — to influence policymakers’ decisions on rules that affect us all.

The fun doesn’t stop there.

Ajit Pai — the FCC chairman bent on overturning net neutrality — is a former lawyer for Verizon, one of the very companies petitioning to have the rules changed. Lately Pai has been citing an academic paper arguing that the FCC “eschewed economics and embraced populism as [its] guiding principle” in making decisions on issues like net neutrality.

The catch? This paper wasn’t written by independent experts. It was funded and commissioned by CALinnovates, a telecommunications industry trade group. Their biggest member? None other than AT&T, which stands to benefit a lot if these rules are overturned.

This is just one example of “information laundering,” in which corporate-commissioned research is being used to further corporate agendas. It’s just another way corporations are using their money and influence to lobby members of Congress.

During a recent day of action, such major Web sites as Facebook, Twitter and Google stood up in defense of net neutrality by using pop-up ads, GIFs, and videos to inform the public of the issue and ask them to tell the FCC to “preserve the open Internet.”

You too can fight back against corporate influence by calling the FCC and telling them you won’t give up your right to use the Internet the way you want.

Razan Azzarkani is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies.


The implosion of the U.S. Election Day

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's Oct. 27 "Digital Diary'' in

“Though many in the modern age have the will to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to political matters, nobody can only concern themselves with the proverbial pebble in their shoe. If one is successful in avoiding politics, at some point the effects of the political decisions they abstained from participating in will reach their front door.’’ 
-- George Orwell

It's remarkable what can happen after millions of people vote before Election Day.

In an effort to make voting as easy as drinking a cup of coffee, an increasing number of jurisdictions are letting people vote  in person weeks before the election, on the Internet and, more than ever, by absentee ballot. These represent a trend that threatens our democracy, already degraded by the celebrity culture and the lies and demagoguery on radio, cable TV and the Internet, and threatened by online sabotage by foreign actors and homegrown crooks.

Early voting lets people vote without crucial information about candidates and their policies that might come to light in the last few weeks of a campaign. It makes a lot of sense in a democracy to have as many people as possible come to the polls on the same day and with the same general information. Certainly there are some cases, such as with shut-ins, of people who can’t get to the polls;  they must be accommodated.  But the overwhelming majority of citizens can easily take the 20 minutes or half an hour required to show up and vote – and yes, photo IDs should be required of everyone to avoid fraud.

Going to the polls on the same day is a celebration of, and reminder of, the preciousness of the right to vote. We’re degrading that by making the voting experience more superficial,  in the Slob Culture that has taken over America. It’s interesting that voting for many offices has declined even as we have made it easier and easier. We have devalued it.

Internet voting is a huge menace. Nothing, repeat nothing on the Internet is secure from hackers, be they homegrown hackers, including many thieves, those working for the Russian and Chinese dictatorships or such terrorist groups as ISIS. Such individuals, nations and groups are constantly engaging in cyber-war against the U.S. and its citizens. Thus, Internet voting should be banned by all states.

Beyond that, it’s past time for Americans to wake up and push back on attempts by business and governments to get us to do virtually all our transactions on the Internet.  Of course most business executives like the Internet because it lets them lay off more people, rewarding those executives with even more money. And governments  like it because it lets them, too, cut staffs and because it tends to keep pesky citizens with their complaints and questions at more distance.

But this relentless push to make everyone live on the Internet puts citizens in ever-increasing danger of having their information, their privacy and their money stolen and their reputations sullied.  They could start their pushback by as much as possible avoiding online banking and other routine financial transactions and become far more careful about their use of social media. As I have often said, paper is looking better and better.

Meanwhile, the  swelling Internet of Things (e.g., printers, thermostats and power systems connected to the Web) poses a wide range of new threats to governments at all levels, businesses and individuals.

The World Wide Web expandedfar faster than security and now we’re all in peril.
Companies have been ever more heavily selling computer-connected hardware without thinking through the ramifications of what they were doing, such as letting the Chinese and Russians turn off our power.

We already have much  reason to rue our over-reliance on the Internet. Much of that over-reliance has been  involuntary but some of it is a voluntary and myopic quest for convenience above all else.

Llewellyn King: Technology is more powerful than politicians


Dear Candidates:

Even as you strain to tell us the wondrous things that will come about if you are elected in November, may I tell you some wondrous things that are happening anyway?

My contention here is twofold: First, not everything that changes our lives is political. Second, not all technological change has to do with the Internet.

In the same vein, not all progress will come out of the established agencies of private change, such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Tesla.

Of all things, an electric utility has moved into the world of innovation. It is the Southern Co., under the dynamic chairmanship of Tom Fanning.

Southern is on the cutting edge of utility technologies, including carbon capture and storage, and advanced coal combustion. It is also building two state-of-the-art nuclear plants in Georgia.

Fanning believes that the remit of the electric utility runs beyond the flow of electrons. Hence, one of Southern’s newest and most revolutionary undertakings: the vertical, urban farm.

According to Fanning, the idea is to go to blighted city areas where there is a shortage of fresh produce — the kind produced by truck farms — and convert old industrial and office buildings into urban farms. “We’re taking vacant, commercial buildings and creating farms that are vertical. There, produce can be grown more efficiently with our light and water systems. One of the best things is that you don’t need to use pesticides,” he told me.

Other things that are coming down the pike include the capture of carbon after combustion in power plants, steel mills and cement plants. What was a crazy scheme is almost a reality: So, be careful before you join the lynch mob of fossil-fuel haters.

Then there is the revolution in manufacturing. Now, with additive manufacturing, we can build up goods rather than cutting them to shape: no more wasted glass, plastic or steel. Houses, bridges, even guns have been printed.

It ain’t gonna be your father’s factory. So if your plan is to bring back the factories of the Industrial Revolution, better think some more. The new factories will be smaller, more dispersed and, in many cases, may be in or near workers’ homes.

And before you lay into cutting government, be sure you do not cut out vital organs like the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Sandia national laboratories that maintain our nuclear weapons and have harnessed things like the seismic technologies that have changed energy supply and kept us as the world’s leader in physics.

These labs are the muscles in the strong arm of American technology. Never forget that the Internet was invented by an arm of the Department of Defense. So do not malign government science and research.

Spare our technology, please, and do not get policy from the old tapes or old demagogues. The world is changing a lot faster than the talking points. If you are to lead it, you ought to understand that what was needed 10 years ago is not needed now, and technology will shape the future as much or more than you think you will, if elected. 

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. He is a longtime publisher, editor, columnist and international business executive who is now based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. This piece first ran on

Llewellyn King: Internet is a cesspool of crime, war and mischief

Via Inside Sources

The big news coming out of the G7 meeting in Japan will not be about establishing international norms for cybersecurity. That will only get an honorable mention at best. But maybe it should get greater attention: The threat is real and growing.

Consider just these four events of the recent past:

The electric grid in Ukraine was brought down last Dec. 23 by, it is believed, the Russians. Because of its older design, operators were able to restore power with manual overrides of the computer-controlled system.

The Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles was ransomed. This crime takes place when a hacker encrypts your data and demands a ransom, often in untraceable bitcoin, to unlock it. The hospital paid $17,000 rather than risk patients and its ability to operate.

While these ransom attacks are fairly common, this is the first one believed to have been launched against a hospital. Previously, hospitals had thought patient records and payment details were what hackers would want, not control of the operating systems. Some of the ransoms are as low as $3,000, with the criminals clearly betting that the victims would lose much more by not settling immediately, as did the medical center. The extortionists first asked for $3.6 million.

In a blockbuster heist on the Internet, the Bangladesh central bank was robbed of $81 million. The crooks were able to authorize the Federal Reserve of New York to release the money held in an account there. They would have got away with another $860 million, if it were not for a typing mistake. In this case, the money was wired to fraudulent accounts in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Target, the giant retailer, lost millions of customer records, including credit-card details, to an attack in February 2014. Since then, these attacks on retailers to get data have become common. Hackers sell credit card details on what is known as the “black web” to other criminals for big money.Often the finger is pointed at China, which will not be at the G7. While it may be a perpetrator, it also has victim concerns. There is no reason to think that Chinese commerce is not as vulnerable as that in the West.

China, with the help of the Red Army, is blamed in many attacks, particularly on U.S. government departments. But little is known of attacks Chinese institutions sustain.

Governments want to police the Internet and protect their commerce and citizens, but they are also interested in using it in cyberwar. Additionally, they freely use it in the collection of intelligence and as a tool of war or persuasion. Witness U.S. attempts to impede the operation of the centrifuges in Iran and its acknowledged attacks on the computers of ISIS.

As the Net’s guerilla war intensifies, the U.S. electric utility industry, and those of other countries, is a major source of concern, especially since the Ukraine attack. Scott Aaronson, who heads up the cybersecurity efforts of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for private utilities, says the government’s role is essential and the electric companies work closely with the government in bracing their own cyber defenses.

Still, opinions differ dramatically about the vulnerability of the electric grid.

These contrasting opinions were on view at a meeting in Boston last month, when two of the top experts on cybersecurity took opposing views of utility vulnerability. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security who now teaches emergency management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said she believed the threat to the electric grid was not severe. But Mourad Debbabi, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who also has had a career in private industry, thinks the grid is vulnerable -- and that vulnerability goes all the way down to new "smart meters."

The fact is that the grid is the battleground for what Aaronson calls “asymmetrical war” where the enemy is varied in skill, purpose and location, while the victims are the equivalent of a standing army, vigilant and vulnerable. No amount of government collaboration will stop criminals and rogue non-state players from hacking out of greed, or malice, or just plain hacker adventurism.

Governments have double standards, exempting themselves when it suits from the norms they are trying to institutionalize. Cyber mischief and defending against it are both big businesses, and the existential threat is always there. 

Llewellyn King is a longtime publisher, columnist and international business consultant. He is host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS.

Editor's note: See for coverage of  international cybersecurity issues.


Chris Powell: Voters went where literacy did


East Windsor's (Conn.) Democratic and Republican voter registrars asked the other day what may be the great question of public policy and life generally in Connecticut: Where have all the voters gone?

The registrars, Angelo Paul Sevarino and Linda Sinsigallo, put it in a letter published in the Journal Inquirer. They lamented that only 14 percent of East Windsor's voters participated in the recent town budget referendum.

"There is a growing disconnect between the individuals we elect to lead us and the electorate," Sevarino and Sinsigallo wrote. "Maybe it's the hectic schedule of today's parent. Maybe it's the changing family dynamic. Maybe it's just that too many of us are disillusioned with government and no longer believe that our vote matters."

Or maybe, as the philosophers of old might argue, it is simply the corruption of prosperity, the downslope of the rise and fall of civilizations, which rise from struggle to self-sufficiency to prosperity and greatness and then fall to self-satisfaction, entitlement, dependence, and financial and moral corruption.

Local budget referendums are actually the least of it. Adjusting voter participation in Connecticut for the 25 percent or so of the eligible adult population that doesn't even register to vote in the first place, participation in recent presidential elections has been only about 50 percent, in state elections only about 35 percent, and in municipal elections only about 15 percent.

Manchester provides an especially depressing example.

When it held its municipal election in October 1962, Manchester had a population of about 42,000 and about 12,500 people voted. In Manchester's most recent municipal election, in November 2013, only about 7,500 people voted, 5,000 fewer than in 1962, though the town's population had increased by 16,000 to 58,000. That is, over the last half century, as Manchester's population rose by about 38 percent, its municipal-election participation fell by about 40 percent, even after the voting age was lowered to 18.

Sevarino and Sinsigallo cite "the changing family dynamic." That may be a nice way of acknowledging that nearly half the children in Connecticut now are born outside marriage or do not live with both their parents, circumstances that correlate heavily with poverty, physical and mental illness, child neglect and abuse, educational failure, and crime. Two-parent households tend to have time for community participation. Single-parent households tend not to.

But the phenomenon of decline extends far beyond family disintegration. From half to two-thirds of Connecticut's high school seniors fail to master high school math or English or both but are given diplomas anyway and are even delivered at further public expense into remedial programs in college. Enforcement of educational standards now requires more political courage than society can muster.

Few high school graduates understand the country's history, government, and political system. They are largely oblivious to the struggles undertaken and sacrifices made through the ages to broaden democracy and facilitate the pursuit of happiness.

Government in Connecticut and across America has gotten far bigger than the civic virtue remaining available to manage it in the public interest.

This explains the explosion of corruption, as special interests take over not just education but market, business, and professional regulation and politics itself. Most of the diminishing number of people still paying attention are not really citizens at all but financial beneficiaries of thwarting the public interest.

Far more than the Internet, this collapse in civic engagement may explain the decline of newspapers. For no one in Connecticut can seriously engage with his geographic community without them; they remain the primary and often the only source of state and local news. But nobody needs them for keeping up with the Kardashians.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.

Robert Whitcomb: Drawbacks of deregulation and DIY

  For years, deregulation and the Internet have been pulling us into a more decentralized and freelance economy, in which there’s wider consumer choice, albeit with stagnant pay and a decline in person-to-person service that forces us to do more tasks ourselves that were previously done by those dinosaurs called “employees’’.

Consider Uber. As I discovered when one of my daughters pulled out her iPhone a couple of years ago on a busy Manhattan street to summon an Uber driver, it’s sometimes faster to find one of these mobile freelancers than it is to find a regulated Yellow Cab in a big city.

But the cabs, being regulated, function as a public utility. They have to meet certain basic minimums of availability, cleanliness and safety that can’t be imposed on the likes of Uber, whose drivers are, of course, not obligated to provide services in the same way as cabbies. I don’t think that we want unregulated drivers to totally replace generally reliable and regulated cabbies.

Long before Uber, of course, there was the partial deregulation of the airlines. While this led initially to lower prices for many travelers, it has also made travel more chaotic and unpredictable. And deregulation, the “Hub-and-Spoke’’ system and relentless airline mergers mean that mid-size cities get shorted on flights.

While better electronics systems make planes less likely to crash these days than three decades ago, air travel itself is increasingly miserable.

In the old, tightly regulated days, figuring out airline schedules and fares was comparatively easy. Now it’s an ordeal, and conditions within airplanes are increasingly crowded and unhealthy. And as the airlines, like other businesses, seek to outsource service to computers so that they can lay off more people, addressing problems by communicating with customer-service humans gets tougher.

Then there’s the new do-it-yourself, deregulated and decentralized energy world. Consider that many affluent folks are saving money and reducing their carbon footprints by having solar panels installed on their roofs. Good in itself! But this takes business away from the utility companies, which could jeopardize the viability of the huge electric grids that utilities maintain. We’ll continue to need that grid to support modern society, with its ever-increasing supply of electronic devices.

Might not it be better if we put more focus on producing green electricity with huge solar-panel arrays and wind-turbine farms maintained by utilities that serve everyone – rich and poor?


The Obama administration has worked very hard to craft a deal with Iran to try to get it to at least postpone continued work on nuclear weapons.

But the administration’s effort will probably turn out to have been in vain. For one thing, the corrupt theocratic dictatorship that runs Iran will cheat and cheat as it evades inspections. It may receive technical help in this cheating from the likes of fellow police states Russia and China, two of the signatories to the nuclear deal, which will happily sell them militarily useful stuff.

Iran will almost certainly use the billions of dollars freed up by the ending of economic sanctions to increase its troublemaking. Iran’s regime seeks to dominate the Mideast – partly to protect and promote its fellow Shiites and partly because domination is fun and profitable for its leaders. And Tehran hasn’t really toned down its “Death to America and Israel’’ rhetoric.

Now we have made the mullahs more macho. No wonder Iran’s neighborhood is scared.

Some complain that America, as the first nuclear power, is hypocritical in trying to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of other nations. That seeks to make an equivalence between a democratic nation like America and a dictatorship like Iran. And remember why we started our nuclear-weapons program in the first place – to defend ourselves from Germany’s mass-murdering Nazi regime, which was working hard to create an atomic bomb.

Some say that expanding trade with Iran will somehow make it kindlier. They said that about Germany before World War I and China now. Nations have other reasons besides economics to be nasty – for instance, paranoia, power for the sake of power and religion.

Robert Whitcomb ( oversees New England Diary. He's also a Fellow at the Pell Center, in Newport, and a partner at Cambridge Management Group (, a healthcare-sector consultancy. He used to be the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal, the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and an editor at The Wall Street Journal, among other jobs.





Llewellyn King: The individual as microbusiness


The genius of Uber is dumbfounding. I’m not talking about what it pays its drivers (not enough), whether it’s putting taxis out of business (it is). I’m talking about the sheer brilliance of unleashing the value stored in the family car. Likewise, Airbnb which isn’t denting the hotels, but is causing tax collectors to go apoplectic.

These Internet companies are unleashing the value that families have had hidden in their driveways and spare bedrooms.What’s next? Your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is right, there are folk over at Google who’d like to talk to you.

Airbnb (which connects people looking for accommodation with those offering it in their homes) may be a tad more exciting than Uber (which puts private car owners in the transportation business) because it is catering to a specific traveler market. Hotels have become so unpredictable in their opportunistic pricing that private travelers are happy to leave them to business travelers who are less price-sensitive.

Then there’s GrubHub, which offers free online ordering from thousands of delivery and takeout restaurants. It may well be the next big thing in the market.

These are three examples of how the Internet, which giveth and taketh away, is reordering the economy. They’re beacons for how the economy might replace the jobs that are being lost to computers. They also offer extra income or full employment for people who don’t have marketable educations: driving a car and keeping a pretty home don’t require college degrees in science.

The nature of work is changing, and one of the consequences is that more of us are becoming self-employed: private contractors.

The Internet enables a large number of artisan skills to be marketed. I’ve just found an online advertisement for a dressmaker. Long before Walmart and “Project Runway,” dressmakers abounded. Women would ask their neighborhood dressmaker to “run up something” for a special occasion or whatever. Mass retailing, plus the difficulty of marketing beyond word-of-mouth, pretty well ended that, but it may come back. Now you may live in Atlanta, but you can order a bridal gown from an Etsy dressmaker in Seattle.

The Red Truck Bakery & Market, housed in an old gas station in Warrenton, Va., sends its Meyer Lemon and other goodies across the country. Artisanal baking meets the Internet.

Years ago, a friend of mine developed a knit teddy bear. It was a beautiful thing; tactile, safe for small children. I don’t recall whether my friend had gotten around to naming her stuffed bruin, but he was a darling -- although I don’t know why stuffed bears have to be male.

Anyway the said unnamed, unsexed, stuffed bear didn’t make it into many young arms because of marketing. The big retailers didn’t want it. Things are very competitive in Bear Land, and Paddington Bear and company don’t want other teddy bears crashing their picnic on the store shelves.

That was more than 30 years ago. Today, Bear X could be sold on the Internet. Now I’d wager the big chain retailers would come begging -- offering the little thing a whole shelf for itself.

The miracle of today is that it could happen differently. The concomitant fact is that we’re going to need more cottage industry and more self-employed contractors because the jobs of yesterday are disappearing, and the companies are less and less inclined to hire permanent staff.

Years ago, the jewelry business moved offshore; now it’s moved to American homes. It’s possible for a creative person to make jewelry at home and sell it online.

A new age of self-employment is at hand. Recently, I’ve worked with two inspiring millennials. One is a gifted and filmmaker, and the other a computer wizard. Both are making a living, and neither has given any serious thought to getting a job in the conventional way.

It’s not the age of small business, but microbusiness: the individual with something to sell, whether it's artisanal furniture or a skill. The millennials seem to know this instinctively, the rest of us are learning it.

Want to hire a veteran journalist who works from home? Call me.

Llewellyn King ( is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS.  He is a long-time  entrepreneur, publisher, editor, writer and international business consultant.



Robert Whitcomb: Holiday cards: History at the micro level; ransoms cause killing

Every Christmas week I send “Happy New Year’’ cards to people who have just sent us holiday cards. If they took the time to send us cards then we should reply. Thus you can reconnect with a lot of people, if only once a year. In doing so, you stay in the fabric of a wider life than you might have without the card exchange. Going through them is a sort of forced review of recent history at the micro-level. And then there’s the reminder of mortality, as these cards report more and more deaths to you as the years roll by, along, of course, with the births. Then there’s the obituary by omission: Cards from certain people just stop coming. These pieces of brightly colored paper can be like those models of skulls that priests and scholars used to keep on their work tables to focus their minds.

Along with the cards comes the knee-jerk reaction to review the year past and make resolutions about the next. My central resolution is always, as Thoreau advised, to “Simplify, simplify.’’ (As a bachelor and grand moocher on friends and neighbors, it was easy for him.) But simplification is far from simple in 21st century America, and the machine upon which I’m typing this is one reason. It offers endless distraction.

“Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” Peter Kreeft, a philosopher/theologian, wrote: “We want to complexify our lives. … We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.’’ (Or maybe luxurious leisure can fill it!)

Some people e-mail their holiday cards — to simplify and/or to save money. But these transmissions obviously lack the emotional weight and resonance of physical cards. (By the way, scientists say that reading on paper supports more memory of text than does reading on a screen.) And e-mails are too easy to delete. A really good paper card may be kept for years, perhaps in a scrapbook.

The Internet won’t destroy the paper-card business anytime soon.


The New York Times ran a piece Dec. 28 headlined “U.S. Policy of No Ransom Closes Off Other Options,’’ which I took as an implied defense of paying ransom to murderous groups such as the Islamic State in order to free kidnapped people from rich countries with big media.

Of course, these stories of Americans (such as New Hampshire’s James Foley) and other Westerners who go to the Mideast for humanitarian, journalistic and other reasons and then are kidnapped by the likes of IS are horrific. But the United States’ paying ransom to get them back will create many more such cases.

The basic problem with stories like The Times’s is that they divert attention from the broad duty of destroying a depraved group that would, with pleasure, kill millions of people if it could, to tragic individual human-interest stories. In this diversion, it puts many more people than the hostages in peril, whatever the heartwarming pictures of paid-for kidnap victims being reunited with their families.

David S. Cohen, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and finance intelligence, nicely summarized where the ransom money goes: “[to] help fund the full range of [terrorists’] activities, including recruiting and indoctrinating new members, paying salaries, establishing training camps, acquiring weapons and communications gear, staging deadly attacks, and helping to support the next generation of violent extremist groups.’’

Why not just ship the Islamic State weapons or pay them their wages instead of paying ransom? Save time.

Paying ransom to terrorists kills. People know this, but …

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary.

Timothy Karr: 4 ways 2014 was big for the Internet

The death of the Internet is at hand.Sound familiar? That’s what Internet pioneer Robert Metcalfe predicted in 1995, when he wrote that spiraling demands on the fledgling network would cause the Internet to “catastrophically collapse” by 1996.

Metcalfe, of course, was dead wrong: The Internet is still chugging along, with a predicted 3 billion users by year’s end.

Still, the Internet’s fate feels distinctly uncertain as 2014 draws to a close. At stake is whether the Internet remains a democratic, user-powered network — or falls under the control of a few powerful entities.

Here are the four Internet issues that played leading roles this year:

1. Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is hard-wired into the Internet as we know it. In a neutral network, users control their experience without their Internet service providers interfering, filtering, or censoring. This revolutionary principle is under attack from the phone and cable companies that control access in the United States.

In a court decision last January, Verizon successfully challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to protect Net Neutrality, setting in motion a year-long effort to restore the agency’s authority. More than 4 million Americans, including President Barack Obama, have contacted the FCC, with the overwhelming majority demanding real Net Neutrality protections.

Watch for a decision on the matter as early as January 2015. Momentum is now swinging in favor of keeping the Internet open — thanks in large part to the forceful public response.


2. Consolidation

The Internet is designed to function as a decentralized network — meaning that control over information doesn’t fall into the hands of a few gatekeepers, but instead rests with everyone who goes online.

This has enabled diverse voices to flourish. It’s amplified the concerns of protesters from Ferguson to Hong Kong, given underrepresented communities a platform, and allowed startup businesses to reach millions of new customers.

What’s missing is choice among Internet-access providers: Too many communities can choose from only one or two. We need policies that will foster competition, which in turn would lower costs, improve services, and ensure that no single company gains too much control over content.

This year, Comcast and AT&T are attempting to consolidate their control over all-things-Internet. Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, wants to gobble up the second largest, Time Warner Cable. If regulators approve the Comcast merger, the company would become the only traditional cable provider available to nearly two-thirds of Americans.

Meanwhile, AT&T wants to take over DIRECTV.

It’s up to the FCC and the Justice Department to block these mergers, which would create colossal, monopoly-minded behemoths. The government’s blessing of these deals would teleport us back to a time when just a few media moguls controlled most public discourse.

3. Online Privacy

In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed mass spying programs that violate our civil liberties. This wholesale invasion of privacy has chilled free expression online.

There were signs of hope that 2014 would bring new legislation to rein in these government snooping powers. The USA Freedom Act, while imperfect, would have curtailed the NSA’s bulk collection of our phone records and required more oversight and transparency of its surveillance programs.

The Senate, however, voted not to consider the bill in November, leaving everyone at the mercy of an agency with a voracious appetite for data.

4. Community Networks

With big Internet providers like Comcast gaining notoriety for dismal customer service, municipal broadband networks have gained traction everywhere from New York City to Monmouth, Oregon.

It’s easy to see why: The big providers often refuse to build networks in low-income or rural communities where potential customers can’t afford to pay their sky-high rates.

The rise of homegrown Internet infrastructure has prompted industry lobbyists to introduce state-level legislation to smother such efforts. There are at least 20 such statutes on the books. But in June, the FCC stepped in with a plan to preempt these state laws, giving communities the support they need to affordably connect more people.

If you value free speech, keep an eye on these four issues as 2015 gets underway. To ensure an Internet that’s open, fast, secure, and affordable, contact the FCC, call your members of Congress, and support efforts to build a network that works for everyone.

Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy for Free Press ( This piece is distributed by