Media Musings (archives)

I just love alliteration, don’t you? Anyway. I have been thinking more about the media and why it continues to do such a poor job of covering the news. I’ve also given some thought to the incredibly negative reaction some media-types have towards those who offer criticism from what might be termed the Left. I believe that both have the same root cause.

For the past twenty years or so, conservatives and the GOP have made an all out effort to discredit the media. From charges of liberal bias to the creation of Fox News, there is a pattern of behavior that is not mere chance. It has been their mission to delegitimize the press, thus preventing objective and accurate criticism of conservative/GOP policies and agendas.

At some point these critiques became valid for some members of the media, and certainly for their corporate bosses. Now, there are certain members of the media whose objectivity ought to be questioned merely because of their relationships- Chris Matthews’ brother was a GOP congressional candidate; Howie Kurtz’s wife is a Republican fundraiser; Daryn Kagan dated Rush Limbaugh; Terry Moran’s brother runs one of the most trafficked right wing blogs; etc. But beyond these folks, there has been something more than a reluctance to challenge GOP narratives.

It is, or ought to be, the media’s job to report and analyze the news. And that means to consult experts, talk to politicians and their staffs, etc. and then report their results. Instead what today’s media tend to do is play a game of he said, she said. Left out is any notion of objective analysis or expert opinion.

Indulge me a somewhat strong hypothetical- Republicans say the universe is geocentric, Democrats say it is heliocentric. The story would read in a fashion similar to watching a tennis match. Instead what we ought to expect is a story recounting what each side claims, but with a predominating strand of scientific evidence that the universe is, in fact, heliocentric.

It is the media’s unwillingness to call a spade a spade that has led us to where we are right now. A land where Karl Rove and Tony Snow can construct reality out of whole cloth. And their media lapdogs merely print their latest talking point.

However, that is beginning to change as liberals continue to challenge the media and the quality of its work. Groups like Media Matters for America (see box on right hand side of page) and blogs like Crooks and Liars have shined the light on untrue and unfair reporting. And that is where the backlash against blogs and liberals begins. See, many media elites think of themselves as being enlightened and somewhat liberal. They are accustomed to those silly Right Wingers bashing them, but have never expected substantive criticism from people with whom they agree. (And part of the reaction may also be the result of over-inflated senses of importance.)

But all we are asking the media to do is its job. All we expect from them is fairness and accuracy. Our desire is not for a liberal equivalent of Fox, but solid and serious journalism. We do not expect every journalist to be a policy expert in matters on which they cover. We do, however, expect them to consult with the people who are experts and provide some sort of depth to their coverage. In short, we expect the media to be something more than what they are today. We want them to speak truth to power and to fulfill the role that our Founding Father’s envisioned for a free press.

(originally posted March 2007)

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Rape As a Strict Liability Crime (archives)

(note- I am going to bring some of my old blog posts, from my two previous blogs, back to life. It’s sort of like a greatest hits. Plus, I am shuttering my old blogs due to some of their more incendiary posts.)

There is a class of crimes that are strict liability, meaning that mens rea is not a required element of the crime. Intent does not matter, it is merely a question of whether the defendant committed the act in question or not. Historically, strict liability has been limited to public welfare crimes, such as statutory rape.

Extending strict liability to all categories of rape would seem like a natural progression. The history of the criminal law’s treatment of rape is far from exemplary. It had been dictated for several decades by a patriarchical legal system and society. Even now, there are states (LA and MS) that require a high level of resistance by the victim in order to meet the criteria for rape. The remnants of our culture’s deference to the boys will be boys ethos continues to debilitate women.

However, a strict liability scheme would go some way to remedy the current problem. By eliminating the intent requirement, especially for forcible rape, the victim (represented by the state) would no longer have to prove that the act was non-consensual. It would leave open an affirmative defense of consensuality, and the burden could be set to beyond a reasonable doubt. Also gone would be the hair splitting many courts have engaged in as to what constitutes force (for the many it is still actual physical force in the moments preceding the act).

One of the pitfalls of such a scheme would be the circumstance where one or more parties is/are intoxicated. Imposing strict liability here might raise the defendant’s burden unreasonably high. However, one might argue that under the current regime the burden on the victim/state is too high. It is a thorny issue that perhaps needs to be dealt with outside of the purview of traditional rape statutes.

The other argument against strict liability is that it unfairly burdens sexual initiators, who are disproportionately male. Yet given the scary realities of rape in our society and the realization that no matter which way the system is crafted some party will bear a higher burden, this seems to be a workable solution. The defendant’s case will still rest in the hands of a jury of his peers, who will determine if his actions were reasonable. But by switching to a strict liability regime, it is the defendant who will have to show that his behavior was unassailable, rather than the victim.

Defendant’s would no longer be able to rely on tactics such as casting the victim as a whore who was asking for what she got. Gone would be inquiries into the victim’s sexual past. The focus would be placed squarely on the shoulders of the the person who initiated the sexual contact, more often than not. And please let us realize that the vindictive woman scorned is merely a strawman for a society unwilling to recognize some of its members’ inhuman behavior.

(originally posted February 2004)

Let Them Eat Dirt

The poverty numbers out today are not only discouraging, but they highlight the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots in our society. Sure, it is hardly surprising that in a time of deep recession that poverty would increase. But we should be cautious not to write this off as a mere side effect of the Great Recession.

The problem we face is not merely poverty itself, but the yawning gap in income inequality. And while some of the policies we might enact to reduce poverty are short term in nature, the real effort must be focused on reducing income inequality. Programs such as unemployment insurance and food assistance are stop gap measures that do very little to ensure that a person, or family, remains above poverty. (In fact, such assistance programs do not even get a person or family up to the poverty level.)

What we really need are programs and policies that will reduce the enormous, and unsustainable, gap between the super rich and the poor. Adequate funding for primary and secondary education, scholarships and reduced tuition for public colleges and universities, public housing, and other social safety net programs must be strengthened. These types of programs help to promote upward mobility and poverty reduction over the long run.

Unfortunately, we live in a society and political climate where such investments are viewed as budget busters, despite their long term benefits. An entire political movement is fueled by the idea that someone, somewhere is getting something for nothing. And propelled by the rhetoric of personal responsibility, such that the poor are solely at fault for their plight. Never mind our legacy of discrimination, never mind an economic landscape tilted in favor of those who already have so much, never mind a political system bought and paid for by corporate cash. The true reason you’re poor or homeless or hungry is because you have some inherent character flaw, some type of malignant laziness.

And so we fail not only to address poverty in the short term, but we ignore or even exacerbate income inequality. The same people who refuse to adequately fund poverty reduction are the same who want to renew an enormous tax cut to the wealthiest Americans. And while they try to paper over the true motivation with economic arguments, the reality is that there is scant evidence that the Bush tax cuts created jobs. Yet there is loads of evidence that shows pumping those same dollars into poverty reduction efforts will increase aggregate demand now, and reduce poverty (thus ensuring economic growth) in the future. There is simply no sound policy argument to be made for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

But the real rank hypocrisy on fiscal policy is that these same people who wish to continue a tax cut for the rich are the same ones who crowed about the impact on the deficit of extending unemployment benefits. So, increasing the deficit hundreds of billions of dollars so Paris Hilton can get a tax cut is good, ponying up $34 billion to help those without a job is going to break the bank?

The old saying, attributed to Marie Antoinette, about eating cake showed how out of touch an aristocrat was with the peasants. The GOP and the Tea Party have turned that into something even more despicable- let them (the poor, jobless and hungry) eat dirt.

Political Psychology

In the post below, I make reference to the difficulty of sustaining an agenda of change over the course of multiple elections. Though that point makes intuitive sense to some readers, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate more. In doing so, I will make the argument that a change agenda is difficult to sustain in itself, but further that change, as a positive agenda, is far more difficult to maintain, than its opposite, which is a negative, fear based agenda (not its logical opposite- a status quo agenda).

At certain moments in history, people yearn for change in the political arena. Often this drive for political change is correlated with societal change, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement and other large social movements. Here, however, social change precedes and leads political change. In other instances, the change sought is more of a political nature. People have what may be an abstract or specific notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The most obvious, and I think helpful, example would be the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The country was mired in two costly foreign wars, the economy had started to slide some by 2006, only to see it crater by 2008. The public mood was one of disenchantment, bordering on malaise. The GOP controlled all the levers of government and had done their best to wear out the public’s post 9-11 goodwill. (The probable tipping point seems to have been the Schiavo affair.) When people are feeling economic insecurity, it becomes easy to make the case for change.

The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 midterms by calling for change. They capitalized on the public’s desire to lead the country in a different direction. Of course, Congress alone cannot make significant change when the White House is controlled by the other party. Though the Democrats were not successful in their change efforts in 2007, the ground had been set for a Democratic presidential nominee to run under the banner of change. Clearly this was made all the more possible by the cratering of the economy and the Bush administration’s fumbling through the early days of the economic crisis and the public’s general Bush fatigue.

In the fall of 2008, Democrats increased their 2006 gains in Congress and elected a President. These successes were all premised on the mantra of change. They promised changes in government (clean up corruption), changes in policy (draw down troops in Iraq; health care reform) and changes in political climate (post-partisanship). These messages drew broad support from an electorate deeply concerned about the country’s direction. Not only did it move regular voters to support the Democratic change agenda, but it brought in millions of new voters.

Some thought we had witnessed a new movement, some sort of seismic shift in our politics. (Of course, we’d been there before with Reagan’s morning in America, Clinton’s New Democrats, etc.) What those people did not foresee, or learn from political history, was the difficulty of maintaining an agenda based on positive change. Unlike social movements, such as Civil Rights, which are focused on one particular set of agenda items (sometimes so narrow as to be one item), a political change agenda is too broad and diffuse.

Though it is undeniably true that Obama and the Democrats ran on some specific change items, voters will tend to over-interpret such broad calls for change. Voters/supporters often make a couple mistakes. First, they come to believe that a particular politician subscribes to their notion of change, regardless of the lack of evidence for such a belief. Also, they tend to underestimate the length of time it takes a large bureaucratic organization, like the US government, to actually change. These two mistakes lead to inevitable disappointment.

This disappointment often leads to a loss of momentum for the change agenda, but it is not a fait accompli. There are steps that leaders can take to minimize the disappointment. Most importantly, political leaders need to keep their supporters informed and engaged. This requires direct communication with their people, and not relying on the media to carry their message. If people are kept “in the loop” about the actions politicians are taking to enact/pursue the positive change, they are more likely to show patience when that change is slower than they might have anticipated and preferred. Beyond keeping their supporters, and the public, informed leaders must be clear about what it is they are doing. In other words, explain their agenda to the public through a variety of ways. This also entails correcting false information about their agenda before it becomes so widespread as to be the accepted reality.

Accomplishing those tasks alone are difficult enough, as voters are busy and often not tuned in to the smaller bore issues facing government. These tasks do not occur in isolation, but rather in an environment where opponents are engaging in their own political rhetoric and activism. Thus, change leaders must not only promote their vision, but counter what is often a disinformation campaign against them.

A much easier political strategy, and one employed largely by the Republican Party over the past five decades, is a negative, fear based agenda. (I am leaving out their opposition to the New Deal and also avoiding the Cold War, which had as many Democratic adherents.) Motivating voters with fear and anger is a far simpler row to hoe for a number of reasons.

Fear and anger are somewhat base emotions. They require no explanation nor any sort of positive aspiration. Hope and change do rely somewhat on emotions, but need to be based upon some tangible policy ends. Anger and fear require no such grounding. And so, Republicans have used a variety of bogeymen to scare voters to their side for over a generation.

Starting with the 1960’s and the Dixiecrats changing of allegiances, the GOP has pursued a policy of demonizing others for electoral gain. It began with talk of state’s rights, a not so clandestine appeal to racist voters upset with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Since then there’s been a succession of villains used to raise the level of fear and anger- war protesters, women/feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor, environmentalists, and now Muslims.

There is always some other available to demonize. To frighten voters into believing they are somehow under attack from people who are not like them. It plays into people’s inherent fears and prejudices. And these tactics require little to actual evidence of threat. It’s more of an existential threat to some voters’ notion of America as a white, Christian, straight, male enclave.

Not only is this strategy successful in its appeals, but it is almost impossible to combat. Fear and anger are nearly immune to logic and reason. So, it doesn’t matter how many times it is shown that Obama was born in Hawaii, there are still a high percentage of Republicans who believe he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. It doesn’t matter that all the science shows convincingly that global temperatures are rising and melting the polar ice caps, many (most?) Republicans believe it’s a myth.

All that is needed to sustain the momentum of a negative agenda is a new villain. And so that is why gays and lesbians have recently been replaced with Muslims, as public attitudes towards gays has shifted. So long as you stay ahead of the curve of public opinion with regards to your preferred bogeyman you cannot go wrong. There is no need to keep your base informed, just scared. No need to offer up a policy agenda, just talk about how the other party’s agenda will lead to socialism. And no need to defend the status quo, just talk about fictitious death panels.

Fear and anger, unlike hope and change, require no heavy intellectual lifting. They require no real thinking on the part of voters, which is especially helpful given how little they actually pay attention to politics and government. The Tea Party provides the perfect example of my point. Most of them believe things that are provably untrue; they have no actual agenda other than opposing Obama and the Democrats; most of them know very little about our government or its founding documents. Yet, they are the most energized group of voters heading into the November midterms.

We have survived at least 50 years of this type of politics, but we have not prospered as a country in many ways. Our lack of prosperity is the product of many factors, but one of those is its politics. And it is unclear how much longer we can survive, as a nation, as a society, when we are fed a diet of fear and anger.

Politics Is Not Rocket Science

Lately, we have been inundated with statistics based projections for November. Though I do love statistics and modeling, what underlies the data is something very simple. In order to win elections, you must turn out your base and persuade a certain number of movable voters to vote for you. It really is that simple. Obviously, the number of movable voters you need depends on a few factors- size of your base, size of opponent’s base, estimates of turnout, and potential anomalies.

Herein lies the problem for Democrats as November approaches- our base is not motivated, and neither are a good chunk of our 2006 and 2008 movables. Most polling shows very close races when using registered voters. However, when the screen of likely voters is used, Democrats are faring quite horribly.

This enthusiasm gap is the product of several factors. It is hard to ignore the disappointment some activists Democrats feel towards the administration and the Party in general. But I think some of this is overblown and results, at least in part, from the netroots’ echo-chamber. (Full disclosure- I count myself among those who are disappointed and online.) The average non-activist/non-netroots Democratic voter is not turning away from voting in November because Harry Reid can’t get Obama’s judicial nominees through the Senate.

Instead, Democratic voters are disappearing because they expected more to be done on the economy. Sure, some may be disappointed by the compromised health care reform bill, but what they really want are jobs and economic stability. (I’ll leave aside the discussion of how realistic it is to fix eight years of damage in twenty months.) I would argue, too, that a prime reason Democratic voters are not enthusiastic is that they do not perceive the threat of a GOP takeover.

It is a far easier task to rally the base for change than it is to maintain that momentum over the course of three elections. Change is infinitely more appealing, on an emotional level, than stay the course. So the task at hand for Democrats is to energize their base by explaining the very real dangers to progress that a Republican House and/or Senate would be. And, they must make clear to movables that there has been progress over the past twenty months, that the economy is getting better, and that but for the stimulus we would be in much more dire straits. (In a normal year, Democrats could also try to suppress Republican turnout. I do not think much of that is possible this year.)

Over the past two weeks the administration has shown they get it. And while I wonder if maybe it was too little, too late, it is hard to argue with the team that ran one of the most technically proficient presidential campaigns in my lifetime. It will take a combination of the White House political team, with its agenda setting power, and other Democrats stepping up, with a helpful assist from the teabaggers and their extremist candidates, to craft a winning strategy for November. There may still be just enough time to save us.

Getting Past Econ 101

(In general, I use the space here to indulge in writing that is a bit more philosophical than what I had done on my prior blogs, where sarcasm and mockery were often the order of the day. Today I am going to revert to form, if only a little. )

Kevin Hassett, Director of Economic Policy Studies at AEI, has a piece up on Bloomberg that is so profoundly ignorant of reality and of economics. It seems the product of an overconfident C student in econ101, crossed with a pathological blindness to reality. Let’s dig in.

Hassett’s main contention is that unemployment levels remain high because of sticky wages. It’s unremarkable that wages are sticky. We know this, just as we know prices can be sticky. But wages are always sticky, so why should their stickiness be to blame for our current crisis? Wages were sticky during the recession in the early 2000’s, in the early 90’s and during every other recession in modern American history.

For Hassett, the central problem is that the sticky wages are preventing the labor market from clearing. Because every C student of micro101 understands that perfectly competitive markets should clear. (Of course, the A and B students also realize that there is no such thing, really, as perfect competition. And that there are a number of assumptions baked into the model that are nearly impossible to attain in the real world.) According to Hassett, the labor market is not clearing due to several factors- plain old wage stickiness, minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and union contracts (apparently non-union contracts, like those of managers and executives are not so pernicious).It should be noted that the latter three contribute to the former, but there is a type of stickiness that has nothing to do with minimum wage or contract issues.

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

1. Wage stickiness- Hassett argues that, “A $60,000-a-year office worker might have an extra-hard time coming to terms with becoming a $40,000-a-year worker.” I’m not sure what world Hassett is living in, but I don’t think anyone would gleefully accept a 1/3 pay cut. However, in the real world we live in, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of workers have accepted pay cuts, benefit cuts and unpaid furloughs in order to retain their jobs.

2. Minimum wage- Hassett would like us to believe that the increase in the minimum wage has increased unemployment, especially among teens. In order to believe that, you’d have to ignore the fact that teens possess less skills and are often not as good as workers as their adult competitors. The real driving force for teenage unemployment is the high number of unemployed adults, whose work experience makes them much more attractive candidates. Though, in fairness to Hassett, he probably believes that the absence of a minimum wage would open the floodgates to teenagers working for $1.25/ hour.

3. Unemployment insurance- Hassett posits that the reason for geographic mismtach is unemployment insurance- “So why isn’t there a traffic jam of job-seekers trekking from Las Vegas to Fargo, and from other high-unemployment areas to high-employment ones? One reason is unemployment insurance.” This is similar to Casey Mulligan’s notion that the unemployed are just taking unpaid vacations in its foolishness and lack of understanding reality. Unemployment insurance provides, at best, roughly 40% of what a person earned while employed.

This raises two points. First, to imagine that unemployment provides some sort of strong incentive to not work is beyond silly. How many people can afford to subsist on 40% of their former wage rate? Second, how does Hassett expect people receiving a fraction of their former wages to be able to afford to move? Remember that bit above about perfect competition? Well, one of the assumptions is perfect mobility. Ooops.

4. Union contracts- Hassett writes, “because union contracts generally cover multiple years, adjusting wages in response to economic circumstances would require a return to the bargaining table, which rarely happens.” Sure, contracts generally do cover multiple years. Yet examples abound of unionized workers accepting wage and benefit cuts and furloughs (as noted above). Though a good deal of this has been in the public sector, the folks in the UAW and other large unions have accepted wage concessions during this recession.

Either Hassett is truly this dumb, or he thinks Bloomberg’s readers are too dumb to see through his trope. This is standard issue conservative economics- blame unions and the government for the minimum wage and unemployment insurance- that is trotted out no matter what the economic situation. They will say it when the economy is humming and when it’s mired in recession and every point in between.

What is astounding is that Hassett seems intent on making this argument despite ample evidence to the contrary. Does he not know anyone currently unemployed? Does he not read a paper to see that plenty of people have taken pay cuts in some form?

Perhaps most troubling, though, is his inability to think through his argument. There is at least some reason to believe that large scale downward wage adjustments could crater aggregate demand. Even if we assume unemployment is reduced under his plan, it’s unclear that it would offset the decline in consumption caused by lower wages. And, of course, there is always price stickiness to deal with. Not to mention deflation.

It’s almost as if Kevin Hassett puts his ideology ahead of his intellectual honesty. At AEI? Quelle surprise!

Dear Prudence, Can We Have Good Fiscal Policy?

(For the sake of my argument, I will assume two things- (1) Democrats are willing to go to the mat for good policy; (2) Republicans are actually willing to govern and not just obstruct. Neither of these assumptions are true.)

The United States currently faces two major crises- (1) a stagnating economic recovery, and (2) a staggeringly large, and growing, budget deficit. Not only do both portend continued and future trouble for the US economy, but they generally run in opposite directions. Injecting additional dollars into the economy, via some type of stimulus, will grow the deficit. And, cutting spending, in order to shrink the deficit, will only further strangle what is a weak recovery.

Given what seems an impossible situation (addressing both problems simultaneously), there are limited fiscal policy options available. Of course, one could go full Keynesian and simply prime the pump with additional stimulus, regardless of whether or not it is financed by debt. Given the extremely low rates on Treasuries, such an option ought not be entirely ruled out of order. In fact, this is the argument made by Krugman and others. And while it is true that the cost of borrowing is near zero, our addiction to debt (going on close to ten years now, thanks to the Bush administration) needs to be checked at some point. One might argue that now is not the right time to do so, and it is a valid point.

What I would suggest is something that finds a compromise between the deficit hawks and the Keynesians. Allow the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, as they are scheduled, and use this revenue to finance other stimulative activity. It is important to note that it is only the tax cuts for the wealthy that would be allowed to expire. Those targeted at the middle class should be extended another two years.  What exactly would this revenue finance?

1. Off the top, some of the additional revenue must be used to finance the middle class tax cuts and a fix to the AMT.

2. Payroll tax holiday. I’m open as to the exact length of such a holiday, but feel that it needs to be long enough that people will not just smooth their consumption. Too short of a holiday will not provide much stimulus because people will either smooth consumption or use this short term increase in income to pay off debt. My best guess is that a holiday needs to be longer than 6 months.

3. Infrastructure investment. The President has called for a $50 billion investment in roads, rails and runways. While this is a good start, it is inadequate to really bring our transportation system into the 21st century. Decades of neglect cannot be remedied in a year or two. We must make a long-term commitment to modernizing our infrastructure, including transportation but also our power grid.

4. Backstop state revenues. One of the major shortcomings of the original stimulus bill was that it did not provide enough revenue to states. Unlike the federal government, states must maintain a balanced budget. Certainly, some creative accounting can be done, and personnel is sometimes moved over to the capital budget in order to avoid cuts, but it’s no secret that state budgets have been wracked by this recession. The original stimulus also structured aid to states the wrong way. Instead of providing a temporary increase in FMAP and money for education (and other minor support), the package should have been an open-ended commitment to close state budget gaps, for at least two fiscal years. (Obviously, there would need to be a maintenance of effort requirement so that federal funds were supplementing, not supplanting, state revenues.)

A key feature of all these proposals is their fixed term duration, with the exception of a permanent AMT fix. This ensures that any increase in the deficit will be temporary and not baked into out years. In addition, the final three recommendations all have a stimulative effect, which means more people working, less people collecting unemployment, and more income and sales tax revenues for state and federal governments.

It is clear that we should not simply spend our way out of the recession, but we must not cut our way out of the deficit. A prudent fiscal policy attempts to address both of these concerns, or is at least mindful of both. What I have offered here is such a plan. It’s not my ideal, nor is it perfect. But it is a reasonable attempt to jump start our economy while narrowing our deficit.