Friday, July 2, 2010

Rights vs. Expectations

Finland announced this week that it is the first nation to make broadband access the right of every citizen. As we are coming up on Independence Day and the chance to celebrate our own rights and liberties as a nation, Finland's announcement set me thinking. Is broadband access actually a right, or is it merely an expectation? Does an expectation deserve to be upgraded to a right? What difference does it make anyway?

One of the best sermons I ever heard was actually not a sermon in the traditional sense. The pastor of the church I was attending at the time went on vacation, and the assistant pastor spoke in his place. But the assistant pastor mainly did family counseling and so when he had to preach, he used his counseling sessions as the basis for his talk. And the sermon on this particular Sunday was on this issue of rights versus expectations based on his experiences counseling families. It seems that we all approach life with a given set of expectations--expectations for our careers, our social lives, our relationships, our financial success, etc. The problem is that we mentally turn those expectations into rights, and then when our expectations are not met, we get angry. We may say that we have the right to be loved, respected or appreciated by an individual, but when that person hurts us, they have violated our rights. The pastor's point was that most of the things that we claim as rights actually are not--they are just expectations. For example, most people believe that they have a right to be married, but marriage is not a right, it is an expectation. If you believe that it is your right to be married, and yet it never happens for you, you will become a very bitter individual. In truth, he told us, we have very few actual rights, and we need to learn the difference between rights and expectations in order to manage our personal emotional health and control our reactions to disappointment.

I have thought about this comparison of rights versus expectations for many years, and I think that it is very applicable in the current social and political environment. As we celebrate Independence Day, we remember the Declaration of Independence, which states that we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Later, when the Constitution was signed, we were given a bill of rights which gave us, among other things, the right to freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the right to keep and bear arms, and the right to peaceful assembly. Over the 234 years of our nation's existence, we have added other rights, such as the right for all Americans to obtain credit for housing without regard to race, religion, handicap or familial status, the right to live in whatever neighborhoods we choose, the right of all citizens of legal age to vote, and so on and so forth. We are arguably the freest society that has ever existed. But does having so many legitimate rights make us less sensitive to what genuine rights are?

For instance, in my office we comply with the Gramm Leach Bliley act which protects people's confidentiality in financial transactions. The disclosure states that the top that the borrower has the right to privacy. Of course, we all know that we do not have a right to privacy and certainly not to absolute privacy. We live in an era of surveillance where our movements are captured on video in stores, hotels, parking lots and on the freeway. TSA scanners use virtual strip search X-rays to make sure that we are not taking weapons on planes. So we know that we do not have an absolute right to privacy. What we mean is that we have a limited right to have certain financial transactions kept confidential from the general public and from telemarketers who might be planning to hound us if we remember to opt out of the telemarketing program.

So what about the right to broadband? Actually, we could really see a universal right to broadband access in this country in the not too distant future. If broadband access is a right, and every citizen is entitled to broadband access, then the airways must be freed up to allow all of that access. But then my exercise of my right to broadband may interfere with another person's rights. My brother and my sister-in-law both work for local news. There is not enough airspace available in the United States to give everyone access to broadband, so the FCC is looking at possibly shutting down broadcast television.

This would mean an end to the major networks that everyone has been used to for over 50 years. When my sister-in-law first told me about this, I asked her what would happen to those people who are used to getting their television free. She replied that the government would subsidize the cost of cable or satellite television for these people. But what about the jobs of the people employed by broadcast television stations. In pursuit of giving all citizens the right to broadband access, are we taking away the right of my brother and sister-in-law to jobs they have had for 20 years and 10 years respectively?

And that brings us to another question--is free television a right? Most of us would think so since television has always been free to the viewer except for the cost of the set and the cost of the electricity. (Of course, it is not genuinely free, because advertisers cover the cost of the programming.) After about 60 years of television, most of us cannot imagine not having television. (Maybe that is covered under the pursuit of happiness clause in the Declaration of Independence.) Should something that has always been free to the end user suddenly be replaced with something that costs (satellite or cable) and should that cost then be levied on taxpayers? Is television an entitlement?

If the local television stations are shut down and people like my brother and sister-in-law lose their jobs, the new financial reform bill dictates that they can receive up to 2 years of mortgage payment assistance. The Secretary of the Treasury will "establish underwriting guidelines or procedures to allocate amounts made available for loans and advances insured under this section and for emergency relief payments made under this section 106 based on the likelihood that a mortgagor will be able to resume mortgage payments," although the assistance shall not exceed $50,000 per homeowner. Since my brother has been extremely frugal, $50,000 of assistance would pay off his mortgage completely. That would give them time to decide what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives before they have to go back to work so that they can once again contribute to the tax base so that they can do their part to help subsidize television and broadband.

Happy Independence Day!

No comments:

Post a Comment