We posted a blog by Paul Feldman last week, describing an FCC workshop on the relationship between economic growth and broadband deployment. Paul was surprised that four of the six presenters – primarily economists from respected academic institutions – advanced positions at odds with the Conventional Wisdom. That is, while just about everybody in Washington seems to believe that More Broadband in Rural Areas necessarily equals Greater Economic Growth, the economists’ studies indicate that the available evidence, when analyzed critically, does not completely support that belief.

Think of the economists as the kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

As Blogmeister, I get to come up with many of the headlines here. For example, the headline for Paul’s post: “Broadband Workshop: Contrarians at the Gate”. I thought it captured the essence of Paul’s observations in an attention-getting way.

Well, it did manage to get the attention of Northwestern University’s Shane Greenstein, who (with colleague Ryan McDevitt) was responsible for one of the workshop presentations.

Prof. Greenstein has posted a comment on Paul’s blog (check it out here) and has separately blogged on his own space (titled “Virulent Word of Mouse” – an excellent name, IMHO) – each time taking issue with the use of the term “contrarian”. (Happily, Prof. Greenstein approves of the substance of Paul’s description of the workshop. Thanks to Prof. Greenstein – and props to Paul – for that.)

If I’m reading Prof. Greenstein’s posts right, though, I suspect that he and I are really on the same page. His concern about “contrarian” appears to be that that term suggests that anyone branded as a “contrarian” is something of a knee-jerk nay-sayer, bucking against the majority view simply for the sake of being, well, contrary. As he carefully explains, that does not reflect his attitude at all.

Rather, he insists on using actual data, subjecting those data to rigorous analysis, and only then formulating public policy based on the results of such analysis. It’s hard to argue rationally against such an approach.

The problem, of course, is that that is often not the way of Washington. Those in government – whether elected or appointed or just plain hired – often find it necessary or convenient to ignore the facts, to go all fuzzy Big Picture when the nitty-gritty details don’t happen to point in the preferred direction. And often when confronted by some calamitous situation – like a major-league economic meltdown – the Washington establishment’s willingness and ability to focus on any detail at all (much less unpleasant detail) tend to be even more, er, impaired – kind of like a thoroughbred horse trapped in a burning barn. 

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Conventional Wisdom around Washington seems already to have reached conclusions at odds with his (and his colleagues’) analyses in the broadband area, as Prof. Greenstein acknowledges (“conventional wisdom has settled on a view that just ain’t so”). From a Washington-centric perspective, anyone questioning those conclusions may be seen as “contrarian”. That doesn’t make the questioners wrong – just contrary to the prevailing perceptions. But, as Prof. Greenstein’s workshop presentation and blog properly remind us, just because the Washington establishment has reached a conclusion, that doesn’t mean that that conclusion is necessarily correct.

We can only hope that rigorous and thoughtful analysis is brought to bear on the appropriate data before final policies are etched in stone and billions of federal dollars have been irretrievably doled out. On that I’m guessing Prof. Greenstein and I are in agreement.