Category Archives: Media

It Would Be Simpler If We Would All Just Die

Time magazine recently designated Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage wokescold, their Person of the Year for 2019.  It really isn’t surprising: the title seems to have always been based on notoriety rather than merit: past designees have included Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Watching Greta’s speech at the United Nations, I could barely get through twenty seconds without bursting out in laughter.  Perhaps she meant to be deadly serious, but it came across as overwrought and silly.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about global warming, or climate change, or whatever they’re calling it this week.  The basic premise—that human activity is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural systems can take out—is beyond controversy.

But I’m skeptical about the effects.  I can’t observe climate around the world, but I am aware of long-term trends where I live.  I’m writing this on Christmas week, in New York City.  The temperature outside is 48 degrees Fahrenheit, a little warmer than it has been in the past few days.  Last week was right around freezing.  About 15-20 years ago, it was warmer, with milder winters and several days each summer with high temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  But in more recent years, the weather has become more like I remember it, with over-100-degree days being genuinely rare, every winter bringing snow and at least a week or two of temperatures close to zero, and mid- to late-December being right around freezing, like it is this month.

Nevertheless, it’s always fair to check one’s premises, and when my professional society made a presentation on the subject available, I checked it out.  You can review it for yourself here.

My essential question for Greta Thunberg and all those who go around screaming about the ‘climate emergency’ is: what do you propose to do about it?  Part of my skepticism is that climate change seems to be a pretext for Draconian government control of our lives.

The presentation had some useful insights, but they were very grim.

  • Exxon, in the early 1980s, had endeavored to project future levels of carbon dioxide and global temperatures.  Their projections have turned out to be accurate, nearly 40 years later.  This answers another of my points of skepticism: there were many predictions in the 1980s that low-lying Pacific islands would be underwater today, but that hasn’t happened.  But here is a prediction from the 1980s, by an entity with a business interest in accurate results (what will be the future market for their product?), that is coming to pass.
  • Carbon emissions and global GDP (is it really a ‘domestic’ product when one is considering the entire world?) have moved in lock step for the last 50 years.
  • Even on the level of households, there is a strong relationship between energy consumption and income.
  • To meet the goals of the Paris climate accords, the world will have to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 7.6% per year in the short term.
  • Doing so will mean that global GDP will have to necessarily shrink.

My wife and I could reasonably reduce our household’s emissions by 7.6%.  This would mean (as a quick approximation) not only using 7.6% less energy at home, but traveling 7.6% fewer miles and eating 7.6% less.  But if we must do it again and again over successive years, we will ultimately be starving in the dark!

And we’re doing pretty well in the world: for many, even a slight reduction in consumption would be a real hardship.  Some countries and peoples simply can’t reduce consumption; others won’t.

It would be simpler if we would all just die.

In the recent Democratic debate, the candidates all insisted they would do something about climate change, although exactly what was still very fuzzy.  But what will they do, if elected?  What can they do?

Remediating the effects of climate change will be a vast project: it will entail implementing new sources of energy, building infrastructure to hold off flooding, and possibly relocating whole populations.  Can our government do those things competently and even-handedly? 

And if not, as seems likely, what would they do instead?

What Makes News Fake

I try to get a varied news diet.  I watch NBC Nightly News, read the newspaper, scan mostly conservative news feeds.  For a liberal perspective, I find audiobooks most effective: most of the day-to-day liberal media presumes that one already understands their premises, and the audiobook format discourages me from skipping over the parts I might not agree with.

I normally don’t watch the cable news channels, except when I’m at the gym.  I watch CNN or MSNBC with the sound turned off, sometimes with captions, while sweating on the treadmill.

Since I started going to the gym in 2015, it seemed that the ‘news’ on CNN and MSNBC wasn’t quite real.  NBC, in fairness, wasn’t—and isn’t–that different.  This was before Donald Trump emerged as a serious candidate for President, but has only gotten more severe since then.

Journalism is, or ought to be, like mining.  One digs out nuggets of truth, and presents them to the world.  A customer of a coal, gold, or diamond mine would be unhappy if they received something other than coal, gold, or diamonds, and the customer for journalism should have the same expectations.

But mining is, well, iffy.  One can dig and find nothing.  Real journalism is iffy, too.  It can also be difficult and expensive.  Real journalism runs the risk of getting sued or arrested for saying the wrong things about the wrong people.

Given that most of the media is run by multinational corporations worried about liability and their bottom lines, how can the iffiness be removed from journalism, so that one can deliver a consistent product with no risk of liability?

Just like gold and silver have been replaced by fiat money, so truth in journalism is being replaced by ‘truthiness:’ it’s delivered like news, feels like news, but it’s not quite the same.

President Trump, shortly after he was inaugurated, called the phenomenon ‘fake news,’ which seems a reasonable name for it.  But what makes fake news different from real journalism?

  • It’s all about the narrative:  There’s nothing wrong with narratives in and of themselves.  They’re how we go from data points, like reports of incidents, to understanding.  But in real journalism, the facts drive the narrative.  In fake news, the narrative drives the facts.   The narrative determines what facts should be emphasized and which should be disregarded.  You can marshal enough facts to support the narrative that the United States was built on slavery, but the preponderance of historical evidence suggests otherwise.
  • Is it news or is it opinion?   There isn’t an absolute boundary, and reportage is always colored to a degree by the reporter’s perspective, but it used to be clear what was news and what was opinion.  Today reporting and opinions are allowed to mix.
  • Or just tell us what to think about it:  I noted back in 2014 of an NBC news item that we were told was ‘scary’ before any of the facts were presented.  It seemed an outlier then, but not so much now.
  • Lose your sense of proportion:  If a politician who has said nasty things about President Trump says something else nasty, it isn’t really news: it’s something we’ve basically heard before.  But one can advance the narrative by presenting it as a fresh revelation.  Just keep banging the drum: as my mother used to say, “it’s repetition that teaches.”
  • And now for a commercial break:  One of my jaw-dropping experiences on the treadmill came a couple of years ago while watching CNN, when a commercial for Tom Steyer’s ‘Need to Impeach’ initiative appeared.  The viewpoint of the commercial was so consistent with the content of the news program that, other than the request for a donation (to do what?), it was hard to tell them apart.  I accept that politicians running for office will run commercials presenting their own viewpoints and positions, but this bordered on propaganda.

It’s a troubling trend.  I’ll leave it at that.

Thwarting from Within

Lester Holt was almost breathless on Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News.  An anonymous senior White House official had written an op-ed published in the New York Times that day about how the President’s staffers were working to thwart his out-of-control initiatives.  The item was presented as an ‘unprecedented warning’ on the President’s condition.  This was followed by an unflattering snippet of President Trump denouncing the op-ed, looking especially boorish.  (But what did you expect him to say?)  Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, seemed, on a quick listen, to go along with the message that the President is deranged.  But he actually said that the report itself was suspect, and that was the real cause for concern.

The op-ed itself is understated, compared to the overblown report on NBC.  While I wonder about the motivations of its author in writing for publication while asserting that he supports the President’s achievements, my more immediate impression was that the op-ed was dated: although it was written more recently, it reflected the situation early in the Trump administration, when the new President hadn’t yet gotten his bearings.  Donald Trump had never held any sort of elected office before becoming President, so it’s entirely reasonable to expect some learning curve.  But he—and we—got past that.

So why are we reading about circumstances from a year ago—which we could surmise from news reports at the time—now?

And why is NBC (and doubtless other media outlets) pushing the narrative that the President is going off the rails?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Deep State.

Reaping the Whirlwind

Madam President

Shortly before the election, Newsweek went to press with an issue commemorating Hillary Clinton’s victory.  They made a business decision and took a calculated risk, and they lost.  But some of the inside front cover copy caught my attention:

…But as the tone of the election went darker and more bizarre by the day, President-Elect Hillary Clinton “went high” when her opponent and his supporters went ever lower….

Well, maybe.  Much of Hillary Clinton’s campaigning was built around the notion that she is not Donald Trump.  But, in any event, she didn’t have to run a negative campaign.  The media ran it for her.

It’s normal in politics to favor one candidate over another, and it’s normal (and appropriate) to point out a candidate’s shortcomings.  Ultimately, the voters assess the good and the bad about the candidates, and make their decision.

Donald Trump has made many insensitive remarks, some of them borderline racist.   But there is a big difference between making a racist remark and being an actual racist.  We all know people who are given to running off at the mouth and saying stupid things, but we know that they don’t mean anything by it.  (Alternately, there are some who would say that racism is America’s original sin and that we’re all racists.  But even then, there is a big difference between a mere sinner and a Ku Klux Klansman.)

The media seemed to overlook this essential difference.  Perhaps it’s that in the modern world, no story is worth telling if it can’t be told in five seconds.  Perhaps it helped to sell newspapers.

And Trump refused to play the game.  He could have walked back his statements and gotten all mumbly, and shown himself to be Just Another Useless Politician.

The media came to tell us that Trump is not just a man who runs off at the mouth, he’s a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic bigot.

It’s normal in politics for a candidate to call his opponent nasty names.  But among politicians, there are limits: after all, you might need a favor from your opponent, or his party, in the future.  This is the first time I’ve seen the news media vilify a candidate on their own power.

In fairness, there have been radio announcers and other public figures who lost their jobs over making insensitive remarks.  It’s totally OK, when assessing candidates for office, to make a similar judgement and hold a candidate’s remarks against him.  It’s OK for a newspaper to run an editorial endorsing whatever candidate the newspaper prefers, under whatever criteria they care to use.  What isn’t OK is for a newspaper or TV network to let their editorial viewpoints color their non-editorial reporting of events.

Perhaps it makes for exciting television.  But it can backfire, not just for the news media, but for the rest of us: what happens if the ‘evil’ candidate wins?

*          *          *

In other news, South Korea has been overtaken by political protests: people are very angry at their President, who is resisting calls to resign.  It seems that Madam President in Seoul, among other things, has been sharing government secrets with a female personal advisor who has no security clearance.

And we’ve hardly heard a peep about it in the US.  I wonder why….

The Scripted Emergency

A week and a half ago Wednesday, three men with rifles shot up a conference room in a center for the developmentally disabled (try saying that ten times fast!) in San Bernadino, California, killing 14 and injuring about 20.  I found out about it at the gym that day: I was annoyed because I wanted to watch Judge Judy while on the treadmill, but all the major networks had been pre-empted.

The reporting came across as less of a news event and more of a manufactured pageant: the announcers regurgitating the same three sentences’ worth of facts while we saw the same shots of the outside of a building and distressed people.  It was, in brief, a scripted emergency.

Later the story changed: there were not three assailants but two: a native-born American citizen and his Pakistani/Saudi wife, conveniently shot dead by police.  One of the shooters just quietly disappeared from the narrative.  And on Friday, the news media were invited to rummage around the couple’s home, with all sorts of documents left behind by the FBI, barely two days after the event.

The story has been leading the network news programs ever since, even though there still isn’t much to tell.  The event has been labeled ‘terrorism,’ as if that declaring the event as such is somehow momentous.

Yes, the event is what we, today, call terrorism.  From what we know about the motives of the killers, we now know that it was an event of Islamic terrorism.  But this type of terrorism only has power to terrify if the people are told about it.  Does this event merit wall-to-wall coverage, when all we really know fits in a couple of paragraphs?

The news media are as much terrorists as the shooters themselves.

Sunday night, President Obama, our Dear Leader, addressed the nation, telling us nothing we didn’t already know.  He ducked out of the Kennedy Center awards to make a 13-minute Oval Office appearance, and then returned to the festivities.  He wants people who are on terror watch lists (‘no-fly lists’) to be denied the right to buy guns.

It’s a charming thought, but it wouldn’t have stopped the San Bernadino shooters, who had squeaky-clean records until last Wednesday.  And it flies in the face of our Fifth Amendment (no person shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process): the process by which one is added to the terror watch list is a deep dark secret, with no way of finding out about it until you try to fly somewhere.  For all I know, I may be earning myself a spot on the list by writing and posting this essay.

The Dear Leader also wants us to embrace the hundreds of thousands of Islamic refugees that he proposes to bring from the Middle East.  What they are seeking refuge from is not entirely clear, given that the vast majority are Muslims.  We have no moral justification (a story for another day) to bring then here, and even though they may not be associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda or any of those groups, I can’t see how they can bring anything but trouble.

I don’t really know how a young American-born man and his Middle Eastern wife embarked on a path of terrorism.  I’m not sure it really matters.

But it’s clear to me that the government and the media are doing far more to advance the cause of Islamic terrorism than the terrorists themselves.

They should stop.

Disrespect for the Mets

Daily News, 24 Oct 2015

I don’t usually read the newspaper on Saturdays, but today I was reading the Daily News, whose front page highlighted an opinion piece about how the author (Joe Dziemianowicz, the News theater critic) couldn’t root for Mets star hitter Daniel Murphy because, back in March, Murphy remarked that he disagreed with the gay lifestyle ‘100%.’

The text of the article itself is focused: Dziemianowicz disagrees with what this particular Met said on a subject that he feels strongly about. That’s OK: every man has a right to his opinions. And he makes it clear that he’s still a Mets fan, and wishes the team well in the World Series.

But running an item like this with color pictures on Page 5, and featuring it on the front page is, at best, a breathtaking lapse of editorial judgement. It doesn’t matter that the Mets made it to the World Series (for the first time since 2000!) through exquisite skill and determination; it only matters that Daniel Murphy is a quasi-bigot.  But then again, most of his teammates, if not constrained by political correctness, would probably agree with him: perhaps they’re all quasi-bigots.

And then there’s the line that appears on the front page to entice the reader into turning to page 5: ‘I can’t root for a guy who hates me for wanting to score with Harvey.’  I had to read it three times before I was sure of what it meant: are you sure you really want to put that on the front page of a family newspaper?

Thank you, Daily News, for a totally ugly act of disrespect for my home team.

Village Voice

The Village Voice didn’t mean that much to me growing up, but once I finished high school and started out in the world, it meant something.   I tried placing a couple of personal ads back when the notion of getting to meet another person through a written note wasn’t thoroughly obsolete; I found their leftist tack on the issues of the day enlightening, although I often disagreed with it.

When I was living in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, recently divorced, broke, in exile from the city where I was born, the Voice (available every Monday in the newsstand at Ross Park Mall) was a beacon of what was waiting for me on my return.

And the Voice, oddly, brought a special disappointment every June when I would pick it up and find… the Gay Issue.  I’m just not interested.

But the classified ads in the Voice were the stuff of legend.  Besides the personals, there were apartments and jobs and all manner of human services, some of which I wasn’t quite sure were legal.  When we last moved to a new place, in 2003, I found our new apartment through the Village Voice.

But that was then; not anymore.  (Except, perhaps, for the Gay Issue in June.)

Last night, indulging my idle curiosity, I picked up the current Village Voice from a box in my neighborhood.  (In the mid-1990s, if memory serves, they went from paid to free circulation.)  My immediate thought was that I was missing something: the old Voice was over 100 pages, but this one was 36: barely larger than the throwaway dailies that I pick up for Sudoku.

There was one news story, about how the city was putting more chlorine in the drinking water in the summer months, so if you noticed your tap water smelling funny, that’s why.  The Voice readers of another time would have probably never noticed; the report from another time would have discussed a vast corporate conspiracy to put toxic chemicals in our drinking water.  Alas, no more.

The cover story was a collection of 30 emoji that supposedly represented life in New York.  Too many of them were overly detailed to fit in an emoji.  Some were clever, but in the end, it was tiresome.  In fairness, I don’t really use emoji, and perhaps there are already emoji for what I think are the essential New York goods, services, or states of mind.  But emoji hardly count as edgy counterculture.

And in the back, there were just two ads for rental apartments: a 2-bedroom in Carroll Gardens for $3500/month, and a 1-bedroom in Jackson Heights (‘Clone Manhattan’) for $1750.  I remember looking for my first apartment, in 1982, making $7.50/hour or so, and coming across a dozen plausible candidates in every issue.

Those were the days….

Fake News

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The front page of Thursday’s Daily News brought us the earth-shattering news that Beyoncé was having lunch earlier in the week in Los Angeles with a shirt tied around her midsection and (gasp!) no brassiere.

The next day brought us the burning question of whether some dress was either black and blue, or gold and white.  Now I’d like to believe that most of us past the age of, say, six or seven, know that an object can appear to be different colors depending on how it’s lighted.  Nevertheless, it was a matter for heated discussion, to the point where they spent almost as much time on the local and network TV news talking about ‘the dress’ as the weather.

Why, oh why, is this news?  As long as Beyoncé isn’t walking naked down Fifth Avenue, I really, really, really don’t care what she wears to lunch.  And if it’s now a revelation to the vast majority that one can change the appearance of an object by lighting it differently, perhaps the real news is that the vast majority has gotten really, really stupid.

Meanwhile, there is real news out there:

  • After weeks of tough rhetoric, the Syriza government in Greece began negotiations with the bankers, and promptly caved.  There was an agreement for another four months of bailouts, with ‘reforms’ to be named later.
  • Late Friday night, Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement to fund the Department of Homeland Security for another week.  The Republicans don’t want to fund the President’s executive actions to address illegal immigration; meanwhile, the Administration has acquired five million new residency cards to be issued to those who would be former illegals, and tied funding for this effort to funding for the rest of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to regulate Internet service providers in the name of ‘net neutrality.’  I’ve written about this subject before, and at the time, I thought there was some justification for regulation, although I wasn’t sure it was the right idea.  But now we’re told that there are 322 pages of rules, drafted in secret, that will be released for comment sometime in May, and these rules not only relate to Internet communication (processing and forwarding packets) but also content.  I guess if it’s posted on the Internet, it isn’t actually ‘speech,’ which involves the movement of air over someone’s vocal cords, and it isn’t actually the ‘press,’ as no ink or paper is involved.  We’ll find out.

But these items were only mentioned briefly in the news.  Clearly, Beyoncé’s lunch and the multicolored dress were more important.

Je suis Charlie

It would have been very easy to put up a ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) graphic as my entire post in response to the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last Wednesday.  But that’s almost the same as Twitter hashtag activism: the thought that by posting a hashtag, or a picture, one is changing the world.  (OK, writing a whole post about it isn’t much better.  But at least I’m putting out real thoughts, not just another Internet meme.)

Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) is a French satiric magazine known for publishing irreverent humor.  In 2011, their offices in Paris were firebombed, and last Wednesday, three men shot up the offices, killing twelve, including most of the staff, to avenge the magazine’s cartoon representations of the prophet Mohammed.

In the US, liability makes cowards of us all: Sony Pictures originally shelved the movie The Interview not because they were hacked, but in response to the large theater chains, who took seriously the notion that the North Koreans might wreak havoc on them for showing the movie, and refused to present it.  As far as I know, there is no American publication analogous to Charlie Hebdo:  there are humor magazines, but they suffer from political correctness.

But Charlie soldiered on.

The news the staff was massacred was initially saddening and shocking.  But on further thought, it shouldn’t be all that surprising: indeed, our President remarked that ‘The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.’  And the publication of images of Mohammed has been greeted with violence in some parts of the world.

But we must stand up for the right to publish such images.

Descent into Propaganda

NBC Nightly News - 2 Oct 2014

Last night’s NBC Nightly News began with a vaguely Mickey Mouse rendering of the Ebola virus behind Brian Williams as he told us about the Ebola case in Dallas, bad weather (since when do thunderstorms make the national news?), and deaths from high school football.

But then he began the report of the lead story:

The spread of Ebola is now a truly scary, very dangerous epidemic in Africa, made even scarier for Americans now with the first case diagnosed in this country….

I can accept that a live news reporter, witnessing something truly horrendous, might refer to the events around him as ‘scary.’  I can accept that, after having reported the facts, a news announcer might deliver an editorial summary and characterize something as ‘scary,’ although it’s not a word I’d use in a mass media report.

But when we’re told that something is ‘scary’ at the start of the story, we’re being told to how to feel about it before we’re presented with any evidence.

That isn’t news: it’s propaganda.

From the Mailbox

Disney Insider

‘Like a pro:’  you mean that I have to get a job there?

When I go on vacation, I want to rest.  And one of the things that I most need to rest from is the necessity of planning my activities. Making ‘a game plan to cover more ground’ sounds suspiciously like work.

Is part of our problem that we’ve turned work into play and play into work?

The item on the right is also interesting.  I had to clip it to fit on this page, but the text of the message is as follows:

My four children and I are huge Disney fans and travel to Orlando at least twice a year to get our Disney “fix.” For each of my children’s sixteenth birthdays, I take them to a destination of their choice for some special one-on-one time with Mom. They can choose anywhere in the world….

I have to wonder:

  • Where is Dad in this?  I suppose he has to stay at home and work to pay for the twice-a-year trips: Disney World is not cheap. 
  • Is he OK that his wife and children are addicts who need a ‘fix’?
  • If my mother had suggested, when I was turning 16, that I go on a vacation with her ‘for some special one-on-one time with Mom,’  I would have been seriously creeped out.  What sort of family is this?  (Or are all her children girls?)

Also from the mailbox:

Campaign in Pennsylvania

So they want people from New York to campaign, not in New York, but in Pennsylvania.  Apparently it’s a foregone conclusion that New York will vote for Obama.

I already know that I’ll be out of town on Election Day, and will have to request an absentee ballot in order to vote.  I don’t like either of the candidates, but I find Romney slightly less horrid.  I’d make the effort to vote for him if I were in town.  But given the circumstances, is it worth the bother?

Letter from Spain

I’ve been on vacation with my wife the past week in Spain.  Today we’re in Madrid, and I wanted to see Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia museum.  So we went.

The town of Guernica was bombed in 1937 by the Germans and the Italians during the Spanish Civil War at the behest of Franco, who eventually won, and ruled Spain as a dictator for almost 40 years.  Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to paint a mural for the Paris International Exhibition, and decided to paint a mural about war and destruction.  I won’t try to write about the experience of seeing the painting, other than to note that it is a moving experience.  The best that I can do is to provide a small reproduction of it here.  The original is approximately 11′ x 25′, and is actually painted in black and white, with very little discernible color.

Guernica by Picasso

The display of Guernica in the museum was complemented by other artworks from the time, as well as propaganda posters from both sides in the Spanish Civil War.

The icky part, and the reason I’m writing about it, is that some of the factors that led to the Spanish Civil War are very much with us in the United States.

In contrast to the American Civil War, where the two sides were split geographically (North vs. South), the Spanish Civil War pitted the Republican civil government against the Nationalists: an array of clergy, businessmen, and others who thought the Republic wasn’t doing a good job.  But instead of mere partisan debate, the Nationalists found supporters in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.  When part of the Spanish armed forces followed the Nationalists instead of their own civilian government, the war began.  We talk about ‘class warfare’ as a particular flavor of political debate, but this time, class warfare was real warfare, with no neat geographical divisions between the two sides.

Today, we have  the ‘conservatives’ who believe that our current leadership is not true to our ideals, and will bring about a socialist tyranny.  Some people imagine a governmental collapse, with fighting in the streets and looting and chaos.  Another vision is the overarching police surveillance state.  It’s true that the principle embodied in the Posse Comitatus law, which prevents the military from engaging in civilian law enforcement, has faded in recent years.

On the other side, there are the ‘liberals’ who support our current national leadership, who look around and don’t see anything that can’t be fixed with a few trillion worth of deficit spending.

One big difference is that the outsiders, who believe that our government is on the wrong path, do not have supporters like the Spanish Nationalists did, who could provide military support.

Still:

Our government cannot fix the economy, and this is true regardless of which party is in power.  The best they can do is create an environment in which the economy will fix itself, but I doubt they can even do that.

If things get worse, our government will have a challenge meeting the first obligation of every functioning government: maintaining civil order.

And then, our ‘elected, constitutional government’ will do the only thing governments know how to do in such circumstances: drop the hammer on us.

The Occupy Agenda

One of my observations about the Occupy movement was that while it highlighted the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country, it didn’t have any practical suggestions for dealing with it.  But that wasn’t entirely true.  There was no agenda for directly addressing the problems, but there were two practical suggestions:

  • Get money out of politics;
  • Reform the banks.

These items were between the lines in a lot of discussions about the Occupy movement, and were a frequent subtext of many protesters’ placards, but never got much play in the media.

They’re worthy goals, although I can’t say that I agree with the methods the Occupiers would suggest to address them.

The essential concern of those who would want to get money out of politics is that, right now, we have politicians in the image of those who fund them: the very rich and the bankers.  I completely agree.

The usual solution is for government funding of campaigns.  But that won’t change the reality that politicians reflect their funding.  So instead of having politicians in the image of the bankers, we have politicians in the image of the previous government.  I’m not sure which is worse.

The bigger problem is the quality of political candidates.   In 2009, I was disappointed with Mayor Bloomberg.  He had finagled a change to the law enabling him to run for a third term.  He was actually doing pretty well, and had a decent shot at succeeding in a referendum to abolish term limits if it had been attempted in 2008.

But I voted for him anyway, because the other candidate, William Thompson, was worse.  Thompson represented the traditional approach to city government: raise taxes and pay off the unions.

A similar thing is happening now in the Presidential campaign.  The different Republican candidates all have their strengths and weaknesses.  But none of them is a compelling alternative to Obama, although some of them represent the lesser of two evils.  OK, maybe Ron Paul, but the party establishment seems to consider him an embarrassment.

Until we get better candidates, I’m not sure changes to campaign financing will help.

As far as reforming the banks, it sounds like a good idea: the regulated banks of the latter 20th century helped to make us prosperous, and when the regulations were removed, the banks promptly drove themselves into the ditch.  And indeed, new bank regulations were enacted into law this year.

But the regulations don’t seem to do very much, other than nibbling at the edges of minor inconveniences (like not having three weeks to pay one’s credit card bill), and making it harder for smaller banks to function (so that they can get swallowed by bigger banks).  Unfortunately, bank reform is in the hands of our… politicians.

Real bank reform, unfortunately, will have to wait for politicians capable of executing it.

Can’t We All Get Along?

Yesterday, my tasks at work were more graphical than verbal, and I found myself listening to talk radio again.  A while back, I had subscribed to XM, which got swallowed by Sirius (or was it the other way around), so I can access the XM/Sirius radio channels on my computer.  I had a choice of listening to left-wing talk radio or right-wing talk radio, and so spent about an hour with each.

The left-wing guy railed against the big corporations that are taking over the world and leaving nothing for the rest of us.  He had a guest with an opposing position.  The guest shouted; the host shouted; there was plenty of heat but no light.  It was a perfect mirror image of Sean Hannity.

The right wing guy bemoaned the freeloaders who were looking for the government to solve their problems, and the widespread lack of personal responsibility.

But I have to wonder: I’m sure that there are conservatives who worry about corporate overreach (many of our founding fathers had the same concerns), and I’m sure that there are liberals who are ticked off with the freeloaders who take no personal responsibility and abuse the system.  On a practical level, there’s probably more common ground than most of us care to admit.

Meanwhile, the circus continues in Washington.  A couple of plans to stave off default seem to be emerging.  Both are of the kick-the-can-down-the-road variety, with the Republican version (which seems more likely to pass at this point) having us do it all over again in six months.  But the Tea Party Republicans still consider it as cutting the government too much slack.

In my guts I feel like one of these proposals will get passed, and we’ll all allegedly heave a giant sigh of relief.  For my part, I’m not sure that ‘default’ is necessarily a bad thing.  First, it won’t be a real default: we’ll still pay interest on our debt, and almost certainly will continue to pay Social Security and the military.  Government contractors will probably be told to wait for payment, and parts of the government will get shut down.

But at that point there will be an actual, instead of a potential, problem.  We will have to face the naked reality of the situation, and actually do something.

If we’re worried about the country’s credit rating, the damage is already done, and will get worse if we kick the can down the road.  But a ‘default’ might actually help the situation because we’ll have to do something about it.

A ‘default’ will be disruptive and unpleasant.  But among the alternatives before us, it may be the least painful in the long term.

In any case, we’ll know in six days….

Heat Inflation

It has been hot of late; today’s official high temperature in Central Park was 97 degrees.

And maybe ten years ago, that would have been it.  The weatherman would report the temperature, and the humidity, and leave you to figure out how miserable it was.

Today, in addition to the temperature, the weather reporters tell us the ‘heat index;’ some calculation based on the temperature and the humidity, supposedly to give a sense of how hot it feels.

I think the real reason is to make the weather reports scarier:  today is no hotter nor stickier than a 97-degree July day ten or fifteen years ago.  But by telling us that ‘the heat index is 110,’ it turns an ordinary hot day (common enough in mid-July) into almost an emergency.

If all my meetings got cancelled because of the heat, then maybe I’d feel different about it, but other than being hot, it was a normal workday, with all of my meetings going on as scheduled.  So it wasn’t an emergency, after all.

If one is more into conspiracy theories, one might believe that the use of the heat index is a scheme to make us believe that global warming is real.  I don’t know if it is or isn’t, but new fake temperatures do not help to clarify the issue.

I wish weather reporters would report the real temperature and then shut up: we already know that it’s hot and sticky.

It’s July in New York City, after all.  It’s supposed to be hot and sticky.

Glenn Beck and Brian Williams

Today was Glenn Beck’s last broadcast on the Fox News network.  I’ve found him both entertaining and enlightening, and I’ll be sad to see him go.  At the end, he remarked that he was leaving now because it was his last chance to escape the business with his soul.

Yes, Glenn would run off at the mouth.  Although one could reasonably characterize his views as conservative, there was something more than that: he reminded us of what our country stands for, and why we should not let it go.

A half-hour later, I was watching Brian Williams on NBC.  Of course they have different roles, but there’s something more than that.

Glenn Beck asks us to think about what he was saying, and draw our own conclusions; Brian Williams tells us the events, and then what we’re supposed to think about them.   A few years ago, when we were playing the is-it-or-isn’t-it game about the recession, he reminded us incessantly that consumer spending was good for the economy, and the lack of it was obviously bad.

I’ll miss Glenn Beck; when Brian Williams is eventually replaced, as much as I like him now, I’ll just change the channel.  Or maybe I won’t.  Whatever.

Quickies

  • This week, the New York Post raised the price of the daily paper to 75 cents from 50.  I’m sure its chief competition, the Daily News, will follow suit before the end of the summer.
  • The back of my MetroCard features the word ‘optimism:’
    Optimism?
    A line at the bottom of the card gives credit to Reed Seifer, under the MTA’s Arts for Transit program.  I’m compelled to ask:

    • Is this really art?
    • Did Reed Seifer actually get paid for suggesting the word ‘optimism’ on the back of a MetroCard?
    • If so, did the person responsible for that at the MTA lose his/her job as a result?  (Last I checked, they were crying broke!)
    • Are you now filled with optimism after reading this?
  • For the last year or so, New York City has been giving restaurants and other food establishments ratings of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C,’ based on their sanitary inspection results.  A restaurant in my neighborhood got written up in the newspaper for hiding their ‘C’ rating.  The next week, the sign was back up, but the orange ‘C’ had faded into invisibility.  It looked as if the sign had simply faded in the sun, but still I have to wonder….

Captain of Industry?

My wife is a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and as a result, we get advance DVD copies of movies so that my wife can watch the movies and vote in the SAG awards.  I had wanted to see The Social Network, but missed it in the theatre, so now was my chance.

I’m glad I saved the $25 that two movie tickets would have cost.

It’s not that The Social Network is a bad movie: it has a compelling script, is well-photographed, and has excellent performances.  The cast and crew have more than done their job in bringing the story of Facebook to life.  But I very quickly came to the realization: I don’t like these people.

I remember old movies about how great enterprises came to be.  Their founders struggled with practical problems, overcame them, and proudly succeeded.  But we see nothing about the practical problems of creating Facebook: instead we see how its founder promptly got embroiled in lawsuits.

In fairness, perhaps I’m biased.  Facebook, we’re told, is the social experience of college wrapped up in a Web site.  Alas, I had no social life to speak of in college: we were all engineering nerds, and what few girls there were in class quickly got snapped up by the guys who were better at that sort of thing than me.

But if Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is supposed to be what a modern captain of industry looks like, we’re all in deep, deep trouble.

Yes, but….

One of my guilty pleasures is listening to conservative talk radio.  If I have a day, as I did yesterday, where I’m not actually writing as part of my work, I enjoy listening to the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity programs.  Rush and Sean are in fact on vacation this week, but their stand-ins do a credible job.

Anyhow, the guy filling in for Sean Hannity acknowledged that, in our time, the rich are indeed getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  He then suggested that, instead of taxing the rich and making them poorer, we should somehow ‘build up’ the poor to make them richer.

OK, it’s an admirable thought, but how are we supposed to do that?

Once upon a time, the rich got that way through productive investment.  For their enterprises to thrive, they needed to hire, collectively, millions of people.  And it worked: the rich go their profits, and the rest of us were able to prosper, as well.

Today, the rich invest don’t invest for production: that’s too risky and messy.  If there’s any manufacturing to do, better to do it outside the US where it’s cheaper and there aren’t so many pesky regulations.

And if you want to start a business in the US, those same regulations make it genuinely difficult.

Once, the poor were ‘built up’ because doing so brought profits to the rich.

How are we to do it now?

Chilean Mine Rescue

I spent part of the day yesterday transfixed by the spectacle of the Chilean mine rescue, in which 33 miners were rescued after being isolated in a mine chamber for 70 days following a collapse.  It was uplifting to see happy news unfolding live, as each miner was brought to the surface, to be greeted by his loved ones.  Congratulations to all, not least the American firm that drilled the rescue hole, and best wishes to the miners, who face perhaps a more difficult challenge now that they have become instant celebrities.

I was going to stop there, and resist the impulse to say something snarky about the event, until I saw the front pages of today’s newspapers:

Daily News Front PageNew York Post Front Page

So all that really matters to us, apparently, was that one of these guys was cheating on his wife.

Just Wondering…

There’s a new TV commercial for the Lincoln MKZ: sleek visuals of the vehicle, set to the Shiny Toy Guns’ version of ‘Major Tom (Coming Home).’ It’s an appealing commercial: the music is propulsive and exciting in a way that most current music isn’t.

This is in fact the second Lincoln commercial set to a Major Tom song; last year they did one with Cat Power’s version of ‘Space Oddity.’

Did anyone notice that, in the Major Tom songs, the Major’s vehicle suffers some kind of fatal malfunction and never returns home?

Thirsting for News Analysis

It’s a truism in this country that newspapers are dying.  On one level, it makes absolute sense.  A newspaper is a physical artifact: it must be manufactured, distributed, and sold before you read it.  That one can still buy a weekday News or Post for fifty cents is a modern miracle.  In contrast, electronic media are available instantly, often at no incremental cost, given that one has Internet access or cable TV.

And even in the newsprint arena, traditional newspapers are in trouble.  New York City has three major traditional English-language newspapers and two throwaway dailies, distributed for free at subway stations and from streetcorner boxes.   I’m sure the throwaways make money, or else they would simply disappear.

Alas, the throwaways and the electronic media don’t satisfy.  They report on the day’s events; they have pictures; they tell us about tomorrow’s weather.  But something essential is missing, at least for me.

Most of the media tell us what happened, when it happened, and who did it.  Sometimes they delve into how something happened.  But they don’t tell us why, or what the consequences might be, so that we could anticipate, and possibly prepare for, what might happen next.

When I read the paper, I skim the news and then head for the editorial page.  I study the editorials and the op-ed pieces.  I don’t agree with everything, but that’s part of the charm. When I encounter a columnist I’d like to throw rotten tomatoes at, I seek to understand his argument: what’s actually wrong with it?

Editorials in the throwaways are a sometimes thing, and they don’t run op-eds. And none of the other media seem to hit my news analysis spot.  Newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek come out once a week, dwell on whatever they care to, and last maybe thirty minutes.  Opinion magazines are generally on one side of the fence or the other.  Cable television news has nuggets of analysis, but how do you find them?  Sometimes a TV news program will analyze an issue in detail, but generally after an issue has been open for a month or so.  And too much on TV is event reporting or yammering talking heads.

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, wanting not just to find out, but to understand.  But what happens if, collectively, we don’t want to understand anymore?

News Bias

A former colleague recently sent me a New York Times article from 1999 discussing how Fannie Mae was easing requirements for the mortgages that it would purchase from banks, in an effort to increase home ownership among minorities.

As far as I know, my correspondent is correct: the root cause of our current economic woes was the decision in the 1990s, in terms of government policy, to make it easier to get a mortgage, ostensibly to encourage home ownership.

Yet last Monday, in a series on the economic crisis, the NBC Nightly News overlooked this detail.  According to the report, the origin of our difficulties came after 11 September 2001, when, in an effort to prop up the economy, interest rates were held low, and mortgages were issued to anyone who was breathing.  No mention was made of what led to the easy mortgages.

Yes, it’s a case of biased reporting.

The editors at Nightly News probably anticipated that if they traced the origins of our problems to government policy in the 1990s, they would be deemed ‘offensive:’ how dare you accuse innocent minorities of ruining the economy!

But the New York Post, which points to the easy-mortgage policies of the 1990s and neglects what happened afterward, is also biased. It strains their world view to consider that businessmen might be motivated by greed, to the exclusion of common sense.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each of us to review the news and decide for ourselves.

Everyone has their own particular axe to grind.

Even me.

Hundreds of Channels…

…but nothing on!

I’m working nights this week, which leads me to try and sleep at irregular hours, and when I want to sleep, somehow I can’t.  So I turn on the tube, but I find myself bitterly disappointed.

Last year, I found myself interested in some of the reality shows that showed people doing real jobs, like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.  But those have mostly disappeared in recent months, with nothing appealing to replace them.

I found myself watching Crime Scene Investigation in all its flavors, but that began to pall after a while.  The writers and directors of CSI took my seventh-grade English teacher’s dictum to ‘show us, not tell us’ literally, so that as someone explains how the crime might have been committed, we see the process unfolding in all its gory glory.   And I’m really not into stories that revolve around criminals.

This week I’ve hit rock bottom, in that the only thing I find semi-interesting is the History Channels ‘Armageddon Week,’ filled with pseudo-documentaries about how the world is imminently coming to an end, as predicted in the Book of Revelation or by Nostradamus or whatever, coupled with scientific explanations of how all these horrible things might occur.

If I were a kid, it would give me nightmares.

But now, it’s just tedious.

Enough already!

Today’s Daily News, for at least the third time in the last seven days, includes a supplement with big pictures of Barack Obama.  Today we’re treated to the famply photo album, with pictures of our next President as a little kid, then growing up, and with his wife and family.  And even the New York Post, which supported McCain, is running photo spreads of Obama.

We get it: he’s the President-elect, and he’s good-looking.  We already know what he looks like.  He’s married, and his wife and family are good-looking too.

For my part, it’s another passel of waste paper that I’ll ultimately have to bind up and throw away.

It’s not that I’m against Obama.  I voted for him, and I wish him success as President.  We will all suffer if he fails.  (And thereby hangs another tale, perhaps for another day.)

But I can’t remember similar photo spreads for previous Prseidents-elect.  And somehow I can’t imagine the same treatment for McCain and his family if he had won the election.

During the campaign, the New York Post used to chirp about media bias in favor of Obama.  For my part, I found that the media (newspapers, TV news, etc.) was almost useless in helping to understand the positions of either candidate.  For me, the best source of information was the debates, where the candidates were able to explain their positions at length themselves.

Although I don’t have the data, I believe that many journalists are liberals: they see misery in the world around them, and perhaps believe that the government should do something about it.  But in this campaign, I didn’t see very much bias in reporting the substance: the details of both candidates’ plans were uniformly treated with disdain.

There is, however, a substantial bias in favor of the photogenic and the telegenic.   On the Republican side, Sarah Palin seemed to snag far more news coverage than McCain.  And on the Democratic side, Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate, was almost the steath candidate, appeaqring very infrequently in news reports.

I have to wonder what would have happened if the Democrats had nominated an elderly war hero, and the Republicans had nominated a charming, attractive young man….