Monday, August 31, 2009

Feeling Superior, Feeling Alarmed

Save_the_Rustbelt at Economist's View leaves a comment on something I said there:

Shorter Bruce:

People who aren't like me are stupid.

That is not such a good way to build political momentum for anything.

I suppose blogging, and blog-commenting is essentially a narcissistic activity. Look at me! Here's my opinion!

But, that wasn't the point I was trying to make, when I mourned the state of American democracy, and the dysfunctional stupidity of the politically "independent", middle-of-the-road American public, in a way that provoked rusty's rebuke.

That's not my analysis of what's wrong, at all. It's not about me. I am not expressing this opinion about the grave stupidity of the moderate, centrist Middle of American politics, to feel superior to the ordinary people in "the Middle".

In my view, ordinary people "in the middle" are not natively stupid; they just have other priorities.

For the vast majority of the electorate and population, politics is a question of specialization and trade, like any other economic problem. Most people don't pay as much attention to politics as I do. Most people don't have advanced degrees, or the experience of working in government.

And, they shouldn't have to. They have other things to do with their time. Their jobs, for example. Raising families.

Some people might complain that Americans would get more survey questions right, if the survey was about American Idol, than about health care or Iraq. But, that *should be* OK. People should be able to play golf, do macrame, attend concerts, watch professional wrestling on teevee, without democracy falling apart.

But, functioning democracy is not "free". The People have to be pay *some* attention. Things can be organized to make it easier, quicker. I can buy canned soup and frozen vegetables, to minimize the time spent preparing meals, so that I can do other things with my 24 hours. Whether that "works" well depends delicately on a complex net of specialization, which includes, for example, government regulation of food processing, so that I don't pick up food poisoning from bad practices at some faraway ranch. It actually helps, if there are specialist food critics and teachers to worry about whether there's too much salt in canned soup, or to promote alternatives. There has to be enough competition of the right kind, so that I have choices, when I go to the supermarket. And, it helps, in keeping prices reasonable, if lots of people at the margin actually do know how to cook, and can, say, substitute fresh veggies from the produce section or the farmers' market, if the price of frozen veggies gets out of line.

What used to be called "public opinion" -- the collective views and values of the mostly well-intentioned moderate "Middle" of the electorate -- is vital to the functioning of democracy. But, given that those people have lives and other things to do, they have to conserve the time and attention they devote to forming their opinions and views. Popular political opinion in a democracy in a developed country is a lot like canned soup or frozen vegetables. Possibly nutritious, possibly tasty, but not something one ordinarily spends a lot of time preparing from scratch.

The complex net of specialization and organization, in whatever area of social and economic life, is organic, subject to general entropy and in varying need of repair and reconstruction and tending. Things fall apart. There's a crisis. Repairs are made. Just when frozen TV dinners in an aluminum tray threaten to dominate the culture, Julia Child comes along with a cookbook and a television cooking show. Or, Michael Pollan comes along with a critique of industrial agriculture. Or, Upton Sinclair gets a job in a meatpacking plant. New agencies of government are created, or old ones reformed.

Just as people do learn to cook, even in a world of McDonald's and Campbell's Soup, and that's a good thing, so a fairly massive investment still must be made in political understanding. I think we used to make more of the need for an educated populace, of the value of having people, say, attend college, where they would do more than "major in business" or "pre-med", they would learn something about political economy and culture and science and the larger world.

And, while day-to-day, most people would not have to pay much attention, the demand for attention would vary, with the season and the times.

A lot of what people do to stay minimally informed about political controversy is like canned soup or frozen vegetables. They have informational strategies, that allow them to have opinions, without working very hard at it, just like I have a microwave oven to "prepare" my Green Giant frozen veggies. (Very good, by the way.)

Split-the-difference, middle-of-the-road, both-sides-have-a-point is an informational strategy for conserving intelligence and attention, like a microwave oven, simple, quick and easy.

So, is listening to the pre-processed, canned opinion of a nominally non-partisan journalist, who is specialized in "covering the issues".

The thing is, that the complex, organized net of specialization can break down, and then the individual's strategy goes from being simply economical of time, energy or expense, to being dangerously stupid. This is easy to see with food processing and distribution. If entropy in the organization of industrial food processing methods means that bacteria in a field in California contaminate and poison my frozen veggies, I'm a fool to keep eating them. (I was upset to learn, recently, that frozen pot pies, which I loved as a child, can no longer be made safe to cook at time and temperatures, which leave them still edible; industrial processing is so complex and poorly regulated, that the makers cannot trace and eliminate contamination and the only "safe" alternative is for consumers to overcook them the product to the extent that they are no longer palatable.)

Most people are getting their political opinions from the Media in an easy preparation form, liked canned soup.

I get my political and economic opinions from more boutique sources. Partly, this is a function of my making politics into a hobby, akin to following a sport like baseball. Partly, it is because I'm highly educated in history, politics and economics, and, therefore, can be more discerning and analytical. I depend on Mark Thoma, and Paul Krugman, and Steve Benen and digby and Mark Kleiman and Sterling Newberry and billmon and Arnold Kling and many others to taste-test and prepare sauces and chop celery.

The point of this extended metaphor is that, no, my mournful pessimism about the doleful state of public opinion and democracy in the U.S. is NOT about my feeling morally superior. My understanding is superior -- that's a given; just like Julia Child was a better cook, and better eater, than I am, with my Green Giant.

From my superior perspective, I am shouting: YOU ARE POISONING YOURSELVES! YOU ARE POISONING ALL OF US!

Ordinarily, I would just complain about the quality of the political news Media, in much the way Michael Pollan might criticize agriculture and food processing.

But, at some point, ordinary people have a responsibility, as consumers, to notice that they are being fed poisonous cardboard.

"Obama wasn't born in the U.S." "Health care reform will mean Death Panels for old people!" is pretty obvious poison, I would think. But, we cannot, apparently expect corporate Media to eject Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck from the business of delivering pre-processed political opinion to the masses.

But, the slippery idea that there is some ambiguity about whether the law prohibits torture and murder of captives by CIA agents, is also, to my mind, pretty obvious poison as well. And, we, apparently cannot expect the denizens of Washington Week in Review to acknowledge it.

This isn't about my feeling superior. This is about American democracy dying from ingesting poisonous ideas and not being collectively willing or able to generate enough popular interest or outrage, to reform the system by which political opinion is generated and distributed, consumed and processed into policy, in ordinary times.

These are no longer ordinary times; they cannot be ordinary times, if American democracy is to survive. People are going to have to give up some of their easy methods of forming political opinions for a while, and do a bit more critical thinking. We need more choices in the supermarket of ideas. We need better quality, certified quality if you like.

People like me, who spend more time and attention on politics than is really sensible, have to be the ones, who sound the alarm: American Democracy, you are poisoning yourselves! What you are eating tastes terrible! Pay attention!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ignorance spreads

Steve Benen: "Ignorance seems to be spreading like a virus, which makes the discourse stupid and constructive debate nearly impossible."

Paul Krugman: "we’re having a crucial national policy debate in which the great bulk of the news coverage tells people nothing at all about the policy issues."

Poll, TPMDC:
"A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) illustrates the profound levels of ignorance that currently interfere with the debate over health care.

"One question asked: 'Do you think the government should stay out of Medicare?' . . . Among Republicans, 62% say the government should stay out of Medicare, compared to only 24% of Democrats and 31% of independents who agree."

John Cole, The Stupid Leading the Blind:
"the media in this country has really turned into a failed experiment. No matter what channel you turn to, you are exposed to outright liars, political hacks, or . . . just complete fools who are in so far over their head that they don’t even have any idea how much they don’t know."

Ignorance and stupidity is a strategy. Apparently, it works.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Reaction

I want to write something on the Right-wing reaction -- the birthers, the "death panel" fanatics, etc. But, I'm not ready, and may never be ready. This pithy little remark is just too precious not to save, though.

JohnG commenting on Paul Krugman's NY Times blog: "Hopefully, the attempt to restore 1953 American will not turn into an attempt to impose 1933 Germany."

Friday, August 21, 2009

It is, after all, the inevitable result of the way the media do their jobs.

The great political storm came and went, but it failed to overthrow the corporate news Media, an institution, which has become increasingly pernicious, in fostering America's political dysfunction.

Jamison Foser | Media Matters for America:
"The most striking aspect of this summer's political insanity isn't the frothing at the mouth of a loud minority of Republicans that President Obama is a secret Kenyan bent on subjecting an unwitting American public to government death panels, or the mass confusion among the rest of the public about health care reform.

It's that any reporter who has been paying the slightest bit of attention is surprised by any of this. It is, after all, the inevitable result of the way the media do their jobs. . . .

The last time America had a Democratic president, right-wing activists, with the help of some in the media, said he was responsible for the murder of his close friend and aide, Vince Foster -- and dozens of other murders, too. Why would anyone think that people who are willing to baselessly and falsely accuse one president of murder, drug smuggling, and an assortment of other crimes be unwilling to claim that the current president was born in Kenya?

Conservatives buried the last serious effort at universal health care under an avalanche of (media-abetted) lies. And they won the 2000 election on the strength of (media-abetted ... and sometimes media-invented) lies. And they took us to war in Iraq based on (media-abetted) lies. And ... well, you get the point. When was the last time conservatives approached a big fight without relying heavily, if not exclusively, on misinformation and deception? Why would anyone have thought this time would be different?

Likewise, the increasingly obvious fact that conservatives aren't actually interested in working toward bipartisan reform -- this seems to have taken reporters by surprise. But when was the last time conservatives made significant concessions in order to win bipartisan support for anything?

What makes all this shock really amazing is that so much of political journalism consists of pontification by people who have supposedly been around and understand how things work -- and yet they're constantly stunned when history repeats itself in the most predictable of ways.

And the latest realization that has so many reporters flabbergasted: the misinformation has worked! People believe falsehoods about health care! Many people don't even know basic facts about the current system!

Gee, you don't say? Many people don't know the basic facts about anything. That's one of the basic facts of American democracy. And when people are repeatedly told things that aren't true by people they trust, they tend to believe those things. That's one of the basic facts of ... people.

Surely reporters -- whose jobs, after all, involve communicating with the public -- are aware of these basic facts of life? Surely they've heard the expression about a lie making it halfway around the world before the truth has time to get its boots on? So why are they so surprised? Particularly when they've spent the bulk of the health care debate talking about politics and polls and chattering endlessly about who is "winning the message war" rather than repeatedly and clearly explaining to viewers the facts about health care.

Just look at the way much of the media have reacted to the belated realization that the public is woefully misinformed: By speculating -- sorry, "analyzing" -- why this is the case, and guessing -- sorry, "analyzing" -- whether the White House can develop a "message" that "works." And what aren't they doing in reaction to this realization? Clearly and repeatedly explaining the facts. And they're surprised people don't know the truth. Unbelievable.

In fact, it is the media's behavior that has made this summer's madness inevitable. When they let the loudest yellers and most audacious liars drive the discourse, they guarantee that people who can't win on the merits will yell and lie. When they focus on politics rather than policy, they guarantee the public will remain in the dark about basic facts. When they repeat false claims, or treat them as he-said, she-said situations, they guarantee that those false claims will sway confused citizens. When they continue to give a platform to people who have a history of lying -- and assume those people are telling the truth this time -- they guarantee those people will continue to lie.

As long as the media approach their jobs this way, we're going to see the same thing play out over and over again. And each time, the media will be shocked -- shocked -- that some people lie, and other people believe lies.

Or they could do things differently: They could set aside the punditry and the "analysis" and the polls and the freak show and dedicate themselves to explaining the facts about health care. And explaining the facts means more than calling a lie a lie -- though that is hugely important. It also means proactively telling people how the health care system works, and what the proposed reforms are, how they would work, and what the likely effects would be.

If they won't do that, at least they could stop telling us how shocked they are at the inevitable results of their behavior. It's getting old. "

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Stupid is as Stupid Does

The Hunting of the Snark: Tired:
"This nation is simply too stupid to survive and I can't deal with any more today. . . . reason and evidence don't matter any more--stupid will win the day.

"I believe that the economy is far worse off than people want to admit and that we will be permanently poorer; at least, some of us will. We will degenerate further into violence and ignorance until we are so badly off that at last the ignorant and stupid are marginalize, something I can't imagine ever happening at this point. I don't expect an apocalypse or a return to 1800s bucolic splendor; I think we'll just gradually get poorer and poorer, while telling ourselves that everyone else in the world has it much worse whether it is true or not."

Pretty much how I see the most likely outcome. I hope for better. But, that's how things are going.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The State of the Economy

Peter Boockvar at The Big Picture summarizes: "S&P 500 back to 1000 after a rally of 50%, the 10 yr bond yield at 3.70% versus its 47 year average of 6.90%, inflation expectations over the next 10 years below 2% according to the TIPS, an expected July CPI reading of -2.1%, the biggest drop since 1949 and a Federal Reserve that is made up mostly of those who think inflation is subdued and will be for the next few years."

Tim Duy's Fed Watch puts it into narrative context: Is a Jobless Recovery Your Best Friend?:
"Never underestimate the power of money. Especially lots of money coming on top of a cyclical recovery that is almost textbook at least as far as the timing is concerned. To be sure, you can question the sustainability of the recovery, the breadth or health of the recovery, the nature of job growth. I have questioned all repeatedly and fail to see that the conditions that have dominated the US economic story for the past 25 years - primarily, a continued reliance on consumer spending to propel growth - can continue in the face of massive household debt burdens and stiffer (or, more accurately, realistic underwriting conditions). But regardless of these concerns, evidence is clearly pointing to a shift in economic conditions for the better. . . it seems likely the appetite for risk will continue to climb, and all the liquidity - liquidity fueled by new guarantees that massive financial institutions are too big too fail - has to go somewhere.

"Which is to say that no matter how pessimistic you are in the medium and longer term, you need to recognize the potential for massive moves in markets as risk taking perpetuates more risk taking. And as long as that risk taking flows in directions that do not fundamentally change the US jobs and, by extension, wage picture, it is difficult to imagine the Federal Reserve will do anything but let the party role on. . . .

"Wages and salaries for private workers climbed a scant 0.2%. To be sure, this raises concerns about the durability of consumer spending going forward, especially when combined with fears of a jobless recovery. Indeed, I have argued that most if not all of the jobs in the manufacturing sector simply are not coming back. My suspicion is that firms will use the recession to expand overseas supply chains wherever possible. Moreover, firms will not be in a rush to hire back without a clear resurgence of growth, which seems unlikely to occur given precarious household debt burdens.

"Now comes the tricky part - what does the evolving economic dynamic imply for financial markets? I am increasingly of the mind that although a jobless recovery will be a dreary fate for the American people, it offers the best outcome for financial markets for one simple reason: The jobless recovery offers the greatest probability that the Fed remains on the sidelines. The jobless recovery is what keeps the Fed goose laying the golden eggs."

OK, so what's the punchline?

Tim Duy: "When will that bubble burst? Possibly 2012, . . . "