Prof. Farber goes to Washington

Over a year ago, I was asked if I could consider spending a year in government service as Chief Technologist at the Federal Communications Commission – the FCC. As a person who had spent a lot of time in D.C. serving on federal advisory boards, I hesitated. Would I turn into a bureaucrat? Would I waste a year or would I learn a lot that would help me in better teaching when I returned? I chose to go.

My wife, GG, and I rented a small, one-room apartment on 24th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue at the Pennsylvania House — quite a change from our large house on four acres in rural Pennsylvania!

So what was the bottom line of my year in D.C.? First, about the city. Washington is a small town with a great subway system. There are lots of free museums, concerts and other diversions. It has world-class ethnic restaurants. We could walk easily to the Kennedy Center for music, dance and the like. It is not New York City, but no place is except New York City. The symphony is not anywhere near Philadelphia’s. But you can walk there. All in all, it is a great place to live for a year, provided it does not snow too much.

Policymakers are underrated

Then there are the bureaucrats. I was impressed with the quality of the people I worked with at the FCC and dealt with at other agencies and on Capitol Hill. They broke their backs for not much money and frequent abuse from the Hill. They were first-rate. They worked late hours when needed and had the patience of saints when dealing with the political appointees. The FCC Commissioners — all political appointments — and their staff were an interesting blend of dedicated people watching out for their future after the FCC. I found it intriguing to talk and work with them. They were mostly trained in the law and had a mixed understanding of the technical issues, but after all, that is what I was there for.

What were the highlights of my stay professionally? Several stand out. My wife and I were invited to attend a Senate leadership retreat. We sat in on meetings with the president and vice president and discussed issues with the senators and their spouses. When our elected representatives are off-mike and off-camera, they show a genuine interest in the issues they deal with and a bipartisan spirit that I had not expected to see.

I worked along with [Professor of Public Policy and Management] Gerry Faulhaber of Wharton, the FCC’s chief economist in its action on the AOL/Time Warner merger. We were both key players and worked together to shape the result, walking a fine line between not regulating the Internet to death and keeping it the open, vibrant network it is today. We worked right up to the last possible minute to get the votes needed to approve our recommendations and let the merger proceed.

Techie shortage

Washington is a town with very, very few technical people advising the top levels of decision-makers. In an era where technology has such an impact on our economy, that is dangerous. Most of the senior people are lawyers and economists with little knowledge of science and technology. They get their information largely from the few technical people on their staffs and from hordes of lobbyists. With respect to technical information, Washington is a mushroom farm. I will leave it up to the readers’ friends who live near the Chester County farms to elaborate on this statement.

Was it worth it? Yes. I learned a lot, got a bit frustrated at times and felt proud at times. It gave me valuable lessons in how policy is really made that my students and I will benefit from. I would do it again — it made me a better teacher and a better citizen.

David Farber is the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications Systems in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

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Originally published on March 1, 2001