Action that doesn't affirm

June 15, 1994|By Mona Charen

DO YOU believe in affirmative action? Most Americans would probably say, "That depends." If, by affirmative action, you mean a little extra effort to offer opportunities to the poor and disadvantaged in our society, most people would certainly support it.

But affirmative action, as it has become institutionalized, usually means something quite different in practice. It has come to mean the distribution of goodies according to race, sex and ethnicity -- with no reference to disadvantage at all.

It is obviously not the case that all blacks, women and Hispanics are in need of special advantages. Nor is it true that all white males are privileged. But our laws are written with just those assumptions.

A case in point: The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to auction off more of the electromagnetic spectrum for private use. The jargon is "PCS," which stands for personal communication services. These bands of spectrum -- "narrow band" and "broad band" -- will permit businesses to offer a variety of new services ranging from improved paging devices that may be interactive as well as one-way; to vastly improved cordless phones that won't compromise privacy the way current models do; to affordable cellular phones; to high-end telephones that will completely replace the "wired local loop."

Jeff Olson, a communications lawyer in Washington, explains that the "wired local loop" is communications jock talk for your local phone company. The new technology, when it comes on line, will permit each person, not each place, to have a phone number. You will carry your phone on your person and be reachable through a seamless switching system made up of satellites and cells, in your study in Baltimore or while on vacation in New Zealand. (The flip side of the convenience is the fact that it will be impossible for your secretary to tell people you are in a meeting.)

These technological marvels require spectrum space. In the past, when the FCC divvied up the broadcast spectrum for radio and television, it gave away the licenses -- which turned out to be worth millions -- for free.

But after more than 50 years of this huge giveaway, someone got the idea to auction off future bands of spectrum to the highest bidder, thus bringing in revenue to the U.S. Treasury.

Fine idea. But it presented a problem. In the past, when the FCC was in the giveaway business, it held competitive hearings to determine who would best use the licenses for the public good. And, in obedience to mandates from Congress, it granted special privileges to female and minority applicants. The rationale was that minority- or women-owned broadcast stations would inject more "diversity" into their programming. (Couldn't they have simply checked the programming instead of regulating the color or sex of the owners?)

In any case, the FCC had to be ingenious to devise a system that would continue the preferences for so-called "designated entities" -- that's government talk for women and minorities -- in the auction. What FCC officials came up with amounts to a discount for being the right color or the right sex.

This auction, by the way, is not for the average person. These licenses will be worth millions, even hundreds of millions, of dollars. To get your foot in the door to participate in the auction, you must make an upfront payment of about a million dollars and a down payment equaling 20 percent of your bid within a few days of receiving your license. The big bidders are telephone companies, cellular firms and television companies. No bidder in this process is poor or disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, as the law is written, Katharine Graham, the chairwoman of the Washington Post Co., which owns Newsweek and several television stations, will be given a preference over a white male owner of a phone company.

Not only is such a system of preferences unjust and ridiculous, but also it is divisive. When the government pits groups against one another like that, resentment curdles the brew. Black male bidders complained at a recent FCC seminar that white women get the same advantages they do.

That's affirmative action today: Special advantages for the already wealthy -- and bitterness in bloom.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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