2021-02-25 21:39:19 UTC
After Rush Limbaugh died on Wednesday, there was an outpouring of analysis of his impact on U.S. politics. He popularized a hard-right perspective on economics, celebrating the worthy wealthy and pouring scorn on the undeserving poor. Along the way, he amassed a personal fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
What’s gotten no attention, however, is the hilarious irony at the core of Limbaugh’s life: His career and wealth were a handout from the U.S. government.
This is because Limbaugh was a radio broadcaster. The section of the electromagnetic spectrum used for radio is an extremely valuable resource, and different stations in the same area can’t broadcast at the same frequency. This means the federal government has to regulate radio, and grant monopolies in the form of licenses to broadcast at every point on the band. And until fairly recently, the government handed out these licenses — and thereby the opportunity to exploit the radio spectrum — at essentially no cost.
This situation is equivalent to huge gold mines on public land. Imagine if the government simply gave the rights to extract the gold to corporations, and then the corporations hired a contractor to mine the gold, splitting the proceeds with them. The contractor would easily grow stupendously wealthy. But it would be a little hard to take if he constantly lectured everyone else about the nobility of the rich and the dangers of dependence on the government.
Yet this is exactly what Limbaugh did. No. 1 on a Limbaugh list of “undeniable truths”: “There is a distinct singular American culture — rugged individualism and self-reliance — which made America great.” No. 2 on the list: “The vast majority of the rich in this country did not inherit their wealth; they earned it. They are the country’s achievers, producers, and job creators.” Down at No. 27 is “Our cities have not been neglected, but poisoned with welfare dependency funds.”
Limbaugh returned obsessively to these themes for decades, turning them into common sense in the minds of his listeners. “There will always be poor people,” he said, and “this is not the fault of the rich.” He proclaimed constantly that the super-wealthy are not under-taxed, but woefully over-taxed. (The misleading statistics he used are one of the right’s favorite lies.)
For Limbaugh, all of this was a deeply felt issue of morality. “The rich, as you know, are under assault,” he explained. “They are maligned, criticized, ridiculed, impugned, and instead they ought to be held out and up as the role models.” Meanwhile, “There’s no question we have a dependent class in this country, and it’s growing. … These are people who have had their futures taken away from them.”
Limbaugh’s own dependency on the federal government had its roots in the Communications Act of 1934. At the time, radio was a thrilling new invention, much like the internet in the 1990s. Idealists saw it as opening vast new possibilities for public education and edification, and tried to amend the act so it would reserve 25 percent of the spectrum for nonprofit organizations. Corporations had a different view, which was that they should be given the radio spectrum so they could commercialize it and make as much money as possible. ... (cont)