Is presidential election about ‘givers’ vs ‘takers’?

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, October 6, 2012

OXFORD — A video on the Internet featuring a prancing woman praising President Barack Obama has had more than 3.2 million viewers. In the video, she loudly and repeatedly proclaims Obama should be re-elected because he gave her and thousands of others free cellphones.

What she had to say about Mitt Romney can’t be printed in a family newspaper.

To folks on the left, the prancing woman is a bit of an embarrassment.

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To folks on the right, she is affirmation that the Nov. 6 election boils down to a contest between those who give and those who take; between those who see government as an endless source of goodies and those who understand we can’t all ride in the wagon, leaving no one left to pull it.

Her “gimme, gimme” tirade will not win friends for the president as he seeks a second term. Indeed, it might cost him votes — and 3 million might swing the election one way or the other.

But let’s take the lid off this “free phone” thing. Let’s look more closely at who are “givers” and who are “takers.”

The program offering what are now called “Obamaphones” was begun 25 years ago by the Federal Communications Commission during the administration of a president named Ronald Reagan.


And the request for what started as a deeply discounted monthly service for poor folks did not — and this is important — come from poor people.


It came — you guessed it — from phone companies.

The pitch was that cell technology was so revolutionary and had so much potential to save lives that America simply could not afford to limit cell service to those who could afford phones in their pockets to dial 911.

Another pitch was that “free phones” would help people get off welfare because all job applications require a phone number. The rationale has been that people without employment would remain without employment unless they had a phone on which to accept job offers.

And the rest of the story, also familiar, is that a well-intended, simple plan has blossomed and, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, “created perverse incentives for some carriers” and “invited fraud and abuse.”

Unsubstantiated, as yet, is the presence of politics in the mix. There are some reports that, mysteriously enough, more “Obamaphones” are being passed out in battleground states — where the president needs to motivate voters — than in states where the president has a comfortable lead or, as in Mississippi, he is deemed too far behind to make such “vote-buying” necessary.

The program was initially dubbed “Lifeline” and funded by a discrete surcharge on the monthly statements of those who do pay cell bills.

The discrete charge now amounts to $1.75 billion collected from paying customers each year.

Also, the phones themselves are not provided by the government, but by service providers who know a good thing when they see it. Indeed, any carrier will give any paying customer a free phone in exchange for a contract for a year or longer, so why would any carrier refuse to provide a free phone to any person whose monthly bill is guaranteed by the U.S. government?

Such background information tends to cloud the picture. Sure, poor folks benefit from the handout. They get the free phones.

But so do all participating phone companies who get thousands of customers whose bills are paid without the expense of envelopes, stamps, posting payments and such. Pure profit. And this cash flow figures quite favorably — $1.75 billion isn’t chump change — into their corporate bottom lines and into dividends for their investors, many of which are pension funds that have been seeing losses on just about every investment except their telecommunications stocks.

It’s cheap and easy to conclude Nov. 6 will determine whether America’s “givers” or America’s “takers” will emerge victorious. It only takes a moment to realize that the prancing woman is not alone in the “gimme” category. She’s just more honest about it.

Government spending and government programs of all types and at all levels are deeply wired in to the national and global economy. Farmers would go belly-up without subsidies and revenue from food purchased for federal programs. Doctors, clinics and hospitals would shut down without Medicare and Medicaid. Name the industry or enterprise. We’re all government-dependent.

The election might decide whether the trends of the past 50 years speed up or slow down. Stop the giveaways? Halt the prancing?

Not going to happen.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail