Thoughts on Media

One of the interesting media guys of our time is Ezra Klein. In his New York Times columns he will talk about old media luminaries like Marshall McLuhan (“the media is the message”) and Neil Postman. It’s the kind of stuff that only a truly dedicated communications freak would enjoy.

But Ezra also gets into issues that modern media constantly bring up: free speech vs. the internet, propaganda and honesty, cyber security and data privacy, and so on. He published a very long interview about a month ago with Sean Illing, a sharp writer who does interviews for Vox. Ezra’s starting point was that democracies seem shaped by what kind of “communicative culture” they have.

Sean agrees that “media technologies are disruptive,” sometimes toxic; and so the two have an extended discussion on how a communicative culture can influence democracy—for good or ill. “Our ideology is our technology.” But is it? Sounds like McLuhan again. People liked Reagan not so much for his policies but because he was good on TV. Sean says people “race for content, for clicks, for attention and we act like greyhounds chasing a slab of meat.”

But this gets to something we try to say in the book (The Paradox of Democracy, by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing), which is that what the media thinks it’s doing is not really what it’s doing, certainly not anymore. A lot of the press is still wedded to this 20th century model of journalism where we conquer lies by exposing them or we deliver truth to a country desperate to hear it and people make informed decisions and yada, yada, yada.

But this just doesn’t seem to be what’s going on. There’s too much bullshit to debunk, too many conflicting narratives to untangle. The information space has been shattered into a zillion pieces thanks to the internet. And the audience is so fragmented and self-sorted [that] a huge chunk of the country doesn’t really trust public institutions or the mainstream media. And they’re not listening, and a lot of it feels like it’s just a political class talking to itself. And I know that’s kind of depressing, but that has been my experience . . . .

If we are being confronted by the anxieties and the outrages everywhere all the time, and we can’t do anything about it, and the algorithms are pushing all the terrible shit in front of our faces all the time, that breeds fatigue and cynicism and probably despair.”

No one can deny that, I submit. The other side of that coin is simply . . . it’s what the public wants. A writer on Quora, Christine Infanger, says “the media is screwed up because people have their priorities completely wrong.” I like her argument; she’s on a good rant:

Does the media deliver more banality now because it’s what society wants or does society settle for mediocrity because it’s what they’ve become accustomed to? Maybe both. Let’s remember, consumers and their money have a lot of power—if people didn’t eat up channels known for their ‘news reporters’ blatantly lying, those methods would change immediately. If magazines didn’t sell truckloads of issues dedicated to which stars have cellulite or have been captured sans makeup or post-weight gain, those magazines would find a new tack. If people didn’t pay or click to see (name of celebrity) caught getting into a car without undergarments, those photos would no longer be in demand. If people didn’t want to analyze which celebrity gained weight, has a cute child, and whom may be having an affair with whom, there would be no market for it. It’s worth noting that the average paparazzi earns between $66-100k per year with the really smarmy ones earning a salary exceeding $250k per year. The public complain about taxes being high with those funds going to pay teachers, who are grossly underpaid, fund schools, many of which are sorely in demand of updating and new materials, libraries, parks, and police and fire departments. Where is the outrage about how much paparazzi earn to stalk ‘celebrity’ children coming home from school? The public is largely funding those outrageous salaries, yet seem content with it.

You get what you pay for. And that, unfortunately, applies to democracies as well.

Politics Visits the Dismal Science

A lot of people, myself included, avoid serious dealing with economics. You hear their gurus make pronouncements clouded with jargon, impenetrable concepts, and fixed ideas. They frequently disagree and like to argue. Many disdain the world of politics, though that is a living part of economics.

Now Larry Summers, the king of controversy, has joined with Ezra Klein on his show in a long but surprisingly enlightening discussion about the present inflation, how it developed, and what to do about it. This may be intimidating to some of you, yet very illuminating if you choose to get into it.

The problem both of them confront is the heavy downside of the strong U.S. economy. Both seem to agree that Biden’s American Rescue Plan was needed and welcome. But “it ran the economy hot.” Notwithstanding obvious benefits to the labor market, Summers believes, our virulent inflation resulted. Planners seemingly ignored the long-term consequences of runaway demand.

And the doctor who prescribes you painkillers that make you feel good to which you become addicted is generous and compassionate, but ultimately is very damaging to you. And while the example is a bit melodramatic, the pursuit of excessively expansionary policies that ultimately lead to inflation, which reduces people’s purchasing power, and the need for sharply contractionary policies, which hurt the biggest victims, the most disadvantaged in the society, that’s not doing the people we care most about any favor. It’s, in fact, hurting them.

For Summers this echoes and replays what happened in 1982, when Paul Volcker came in and instituted draconian reforms that finally tamed record inflation, though at the cost of a recession. There was outrage among many of the lefties, but the medicine worked. Now, once again, demand is out of whack, meaning too much money chasing too few goods. Ezra Klein seemingly accepts this but asserts that supply disruptions have played a role too: Ukraine and China and Covid have had their effects.

I think they both agree that the Fed must act soon and strongly. There is really no other instrument to control what seems likely—a long-term inflation of some 6% a year. The politics of all this become pretty obvious. Politico tells us:

Democrats worry about growth-killing [Fed] rate hikes in the middle of a midterm election year. But inflation is even worse for them politically. Recent polls show that price spikes are by far the top concern among voters. An NPR/Ipsos survey showed that 40 percent of Americans are worried about higher prices and 94 percent are aware of rising costs for food, energy, housing and other items.

One aspect of all this struck me. Left-leaning Democrats typically look for immediate relief to help the beleaguered victims (and counter the upcoming threat of the midterms). Bernie Sanders and others have proposed windfall excess profits taxes on Big Oil. Others want to rescind the federal gas tax.

More conservative Democrats like Larry Summers look for longer-term, painful fixes. I’m reminded of the blowback President Biden received for speaking his mind about Putin. He took a lot of undeserved flak for that, much of it from his own administration, which “overreacted and undercut him.” The State Department and the Kremlin both signaled unhappy long-term consequences from his remark.

Not everyone is on the same page regarding Putin, and unfortunately not everyone is on the same page regarding inflation. Summers and Klein did try to bridge that gap in a good, reasoned exchange.

More from Houston: Bullshit Runs Deep in Texas

Abbott and Trump: look at their hands.

Heidi Schneider, our Houston correspondent, unwraps some indecent political behavior in Texas. Quick to blame others, these folks have no competence and no shame. On a related note, I highly recommend to you Ezra Klein’s recent podcast, “The Texas Crisis Could Become Everyone’s Crisis.” Three smart people talk not only about the Texas debacle but how climate change will change all of us.

We tried-and-true Texans are taught to “Remember the Alamo” and the flag slogan “Come and Take It” from our earliest fight for independence. But since the 1990s the Texas GOP has fractured our exemplary and fabled image with sanctimonious messaging and agendas. Fast forward to the present day and it’s clear that Texas’s image as a sovereign utopia needs a dramatic facelift.

Just last week the Texas Attorney General, Republican Ken Paxton—who has been under a federal indictment since 2015—took a page from Senator Ted Cruz’s playbook and snuck off to Utah with his Texas state senator wife Angela, paying no regard to the non-legislative Texans left behind during a statewide weather catastrophe. Just two days after the historic freeze arrived, he left town, claiming his absence was due to important official meetings.

More important than millions of frozen constituents? Do you remember that in late 2020 Paxton’s department joined the Stop the Steal con by drafting a lawsuit against four other states? Dispatched to the Supreme Court, the case was quickly dismissed, as the justices instructed Texas conservatives to play in their own sandbox. Upstanding folkloric judicial leader, or total self-serving schmuck? You decide.

Just days ago, the Lone Star state’s conservative Lt. Governor Dan Patrick went on record insisting on a thorough investigation into the state’s energy failure. He claimed this would not be a finger-pointing expedition, then immediately placed blame for the magnitude of frozen failure on ERCOT, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the power grid. Should we tell him a similar investigation was done in 2011 after an extreme cold snap? Moreover, the recommended updates were never pursued by the legislature. Crawl back under your rock, Dan. Your expertise is in gender-neutral bathroom policing, not power grids.

In the past several years, changing weather systems have brought horrific flooding and damaging winds to my home state. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey became the second-costliest tropical storm on record, costing 127 billion dollars in damage. I remember newscasts where Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with Governor Abbott to release his Ebenezer Scrooge grip on the state’s rainy-day fund to help flood victims. That fund, currently around 10 billion dollars, was originally created after the oil and gas bust way back in the 1980s. Instead, Abbott used his executive power, as he has done for last week’s storm, and declared a state disaster, so Texas could qualify for federal assistance. So much for national overreach and state sovereignty.

The legislature just began another biennial session in January. After a dysfunctional year of pandemic quarantines, disturbances from 2020 election deniers, and a frozen national disaster, voters should expect them to address our most pressing statewide issues. There is nothing exceptional about literally polarizing segments of our state and victimizing the most vulnerable. Meaningful infrastructure and inclusive policies are what will move our state forward, not gaslighting from our majority surrogates in Austin.

As my no-nonsense husband George puts it, “If you are a partisan asshole, own it, and stop talking out of both sides of your mouth.” For me, I sum it up simply as: bullshit runs deep in Texas.