Should Coffee Shops Offer Free Wi-Fi?

A Chicago Tribune article on laptop squatters discussed how coffee shops and other eateries approached the issue of lengthy Wi-Fi use. The solutions presented make one thing clear: Each store must handle things its own way. It's a classic case of capacity and traffic management. Each location has unique patterns of public entry and exit, and its Wi-Fi strategy must work to support the patterns that maximize the bottom line. There's no "should" about it.

Typical free-market answer, right? Fox News commentators would be proud. But surprise: I'm a Keynesian. Does that mean I want government to micro-manage the economy? No. I don't want government to play any more of a role than necessary. But play a role it must.

If economic growth were a steady continuum and businesses were fair to all, government could stand aside and watch. But growth is cyclic with booms and busts, and abuses of economic power occur. That's why government must become involved, to smooth the rough edges of the business cycle and curb abuses should they occur. Government should sock away enough money in good times to become the employer of last resort during hard times. There's plenty to do that only government can, such as maintaining roads and bridges; modernizing the power grid; and making broadband available to all. These actions will create jobs and ultimately create a stronger foundation for future growth.

To those who say the Keynesian model has failed, I reply that we've never gotten it right. We had a chance after the surpluses of the Clinton years, but George W. Bush's decision that "the surplus is your money, you should get it back" killed that opportunity. It was the only reason I needed to vote for Gore.

None of that discussion means there is a "one size fits all" answer for every business issue. The sedate neighborhood cafe may benefit from at-home workers who bring their laptops and work while sipping three or four lattes a day, while the busy downtown shop might find that lack of turnover stifling. And the cafe next to the railroad station might not face the Wi-Fi issue at all if their clients can barely stop to grab their drink in their haste to catch the next train. Local management is in the best position to choose a Wi-Fi strategy. No outside interference is necessary.

Recognizing that does not mean I've "abandoned my principles." Instead, it means I'm willing to be practical in their application. There's no point in telling someone what to do when he or she can make that decision for themselves. But it's also impractical to insist on rugged self-determinism when a helping hand can lift one out of hardship and into productivity. It is that sort of practicality that I hope guides government as it tackles the tough choices of the coming years.

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