Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Brief of Arguments Against Public Ownership

As an extension of my short item on postage stamp pricing I have come upon a fantastic article by Richard Kleibowicz in the History of Political Economy.

The article is an analysis of the arguments that AT&T made in its Brief of Arguments Against Public Ownership (available online in three vols v1 v2 v3 or one volume at the State Library of NSW). This was a three volume, three ring binder "living document" that AT&T prepared to argue the case against Government ownership of the telephone system. The Brief itself was mostly a collection of useful references from other authorities for citing by management or supply to other parties.

It transpires that there were many who argued that both the telegraph and telephone should be government owned and operated in the USA in the late 1800s and early 20th century. The article is primarily about the use of political economy arguments and the process of doing so. For me it has a number of useful purposes.

1. It demonstrates the fact that there was a vibrant debate over the desirability of government ownership in the US, something necessary to understand the variety of structures globally.

2. Second it shows how the arguments mounted by AT&T became core parts of the American conception of political economy. In some ways this explains how vehement the likes of Sol Trujillo and Phil Burgess were in their views about the importance of the strong national telco being not under Government control. Interestingly Australia was used in the Brief a number of times - both by reference to the government owned railways and the telecommunications service. Kleibowicz includes one such example in his text, it is a quote from F.W.Taussig which says, in part;

The continued progress ... calls for keeness, vigor, enthusiasm, single-minded devotio to professional tasks on the part of trained administrators and experts. Only an intelligent and self-restrained democracy, or a very capable autocracy, can enlist such men and get them to do their work in the best spirit. The German Empire and the German States, in their post office, telegraph and telephone, perhaps in their railways, unmistakably i their military organisation, have maintained a high spirit of ambition and emulation. But the Australian colonies seem to have secured simply humdrum management; honest to be sure, ... but devoid of life and vigor.

I suspect Sol and Donald McGauchie thought little had changed!

3. The article notes that mass campaigns had just been introduced from the Atlantic as tools of the Progressives, and that the AT&T campaign largely aligns with the start of formal "public relations". Kleibowicz notes;

The Brief of Arguments against Public Ownership formed the centerpiece of an innovative effort to advance AT&T’s policy goals by shaping popular understanding of political-economic principles. AT&T took rhetorical and communication practices that had been tried piecemeal before and melded them into a comprehensive campaign that embedded the company’s specifi c policy preference in a broadly formulated economic argument. Unlike earlier industry missives created for policy debates, AT&T’s Brief functioned as a tutorial on economic ideas for popular audiences. It framed the debate over the policy choice—government ownership or regulation—as a matter of considerable economic import and only partly as a political decision. The Brief organized much of its evidence according to the economic relations involved, notably the effects of government ownership on consumers and employees. Even citizens were addressed in largely economic terms by emphasizing issues of public management such as government rate-making, accounting, credit, and taxation.

In many ways the Brief looks like a template for a modern day PR Key Message set. It astounds me whenever I find a firm or organisatio that thinks it is engaged in public debate that doesn't have just such a set.

As an aside Kleibowicz notes that the Brief "inexplicably" did not quote from the four-book series by Hugo R. Meyer. The interesting part is that this set of books was the source of the arguments the first Director-General of the Australian PMG used in his arguments for less Government control before the 1910 Royal Commission.

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