Powers That Ought To Be

Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be.

Sydney J. Harris

In this week’s Sift:

  • My Journalism Reading Project: a work in progress. In a democracy, the People are supposed to be sovereign and the news media is supposed to be their intelligence agency. I’m trying to figure out why it’s not working that way.
  • What’s Really Wrong With America: Too Many Free Books. When I think about government waste, I don’t usually think about libraries. But some people do. And other people wonder whether facts make any difference.
  • Respectable, Sensible Bigotry. Accusations against Mel Gibson and the Tea Party are not just political correctness run wild.
  • Disinformation Watch. It’s a shame that anybody has to waste time keeping track of the made-up stories in the news, but somebody does.
  • Short Notes. The Times is still keeping an eye on Palestine. The Palins do soap opera way better than the Clintons. And Nate Silver graphs same-sex marriage.

My Journalism Reading Project: a work in progress

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re the sovereign of your own little country. You’re queen or generalissimo or president-for-life or something. If you wanted to do your job well, how much would you want to know about your country?

Silly question, right? You’d want to know everything you could. To the extent that your administration could afford them, you’d want to have agents of all sorts bringing you information: people who kept track of all your government’s projects and how they were progressing, who kept you up-to-date on the business climate, who monitored the health and safety of your citizens, and so on. You’d also want experts compiling statistics and noticing trends so that you could stay ahead of events. Outside your borders, you’d want agents keeping track of all the foreign countries that affected your homeland — trade partners, allies, threats, rivals.

And what would happen if you didn’t have that information? People who did would manipulate you into serving their interests rather than yours or your country’s. You’d sign things you didn’t understand. You’d empower underlings to go off and do God-knows-what. Even when you thought you were deciding things, you wouldn’t be; someone else would have laid it all out for you so that you really only had one choice.

Well, guess what? You are a sovereign. That’s what democracy is supposed to mean: the people are sovereign; they rule. You rule.

And there is an army of agents out there bringing you information. That’s what the news media is supposed to be: your intelligence agency. They’re supposed to be gathering the information you need to rule, figuring out what it all means, and presenting it to you in a way that you can absorb and use. And when they don’t, you and your country are at the mercy of whoever does have the information.

And so You the People, We the People, find ourselves going to war for reasons that turn out to be false, or being stampeded into covering the multi-billion-dollar losses of dishonest investment banks. When we try to do something in our own interests, like guaranteeing each other’s access to health care or heading off global warming, it’s incredibly difficult because of all the disinformation we have to wade through — death panels, Climategate, and much, much more.

So our intelligence agency has been letting us down. And things are getting worse: news agencies are closing bureaus and laying off reporters to save money. Can you picture any other sovereign allowing that? After 9-11, when it looked like the CIA and FBI had fallen down on the job, did the U.S. government respond by slashing their budgets and firing a bunch of agents? No, quite the opposite.

In many ways this is a big, complicated topic, but this much of it is simple: We the People haven’t been taking our sovereignty seriously. And we’ve tolerated both our government and the media corporations not taking it seriously either. We haven’t demanded the high-quality information that we need to do our jobs.

Scads of books have been written in the last few years about the sorry state and poor prospects of American journalism, and lately I’ve given myself the project of trying to read them. I’ll be telling you what I learn in dribs and drabs rather than saving it all for one big report.

Here’s one thing I’ve picked up already: Chapter 3 of McChesney and Nichols’ The Death and Life of American Journalism contains some American history I had never run across before: Apparently the Founders really did take the sovereignty of the people seriously, and did consider the press to be the People’s intelligence agency.

That wasn’t just pious rhetoric. They spent serious money to subsidize that era’s equivalent of the Internet: the Post Office. Under the early presidents, America built the best postal service in the world, and had one of the highest literacy rates. That wasn’t just the result of our rugged individualism or our protestant desire to read the Bible for ourselves; it was social policy. Because, as Jefferson put it:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

In particular, the federally-funded Post Office charged practically nothing for shipping newspapers and pamphlets, and the debate among the Founders was whether it should charge anything at all. At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Rush said:

It should be a constant injunction to the postmasters to convey newspapers free of all charge for postage. They are not only the vehicles of knowledge and intelligence, but the sentinels of the liberties of our country.

Today we hear a lot from the Tea Party about the Founders and the Constitution and how “freedom isn’t free” — which always means that we have  to fight a war somewhere. To the real Founders, though, freedom wasn’t a strong military (quite the opposite) but an educated public with access to high-quality information.

And that brings us to the next story.

What’s Really Wrong With America: Too Many Free Books

Like a lot of states, Illinois and its cities have budget problems. And Fox Chicago has spotted a fat pile of government waste: public libraries.

There are 799 public libraries in Illinois. And they’re busy. People borrow more than 88 million times a year.

But keeping libraries running costs big money. In Chicago, the city pumps $120 million a year into them. In fact, a full 2.5 percent of our yearly property taxes go to fund them.

That’s money that could go elsewhere – like for schools, the CTA, police or pensions.

But why spend more money on education when the schools could eliminate their own wasteful shelves of books? Bob Herbert quotes the AP:

As the school budget crisis deepens, administrators across the nation have started to view school libraries as luxuries that can be axed rather than places where kids learn to love reading and do research.

And he comments:

What a country. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the bankers keep living the high life and swilling that Champagne while at the same time we’re taking books out of the hands of schoolchildren trying to get an education.

Could anything be more unfaithful to the vision of the Founders or the sovereignty of the People? (See previous article.) All our discussions about the value of education for the individual miss the point. If we were a monarchy, we would spare no expense educating the Crown Prince, and consider ourselves fortunate if he showed any interest in our efforts.

In a democracy, the children collectively are the Crown Prince. We are educating the future sovereign — not for his or her benefit, but for ours. Far more than sending troops to distant corners of the world, educating American children to wield their future sovereignty wisely is the cost of freedom. We should pay it, even in hard times.

Now let’s talk about libraries. A lot of Americans don’t really need libraries any more. If we’re rich, we can buy all the books we want. If we’re middle-class, we can afford a broadband internet connection. Probably our homes have at least one quiet room where we or our children can think and study.

But if you’re poor, or just struggling, you may not have any of that. Lots of children are growing up in homes without books, without the internet, and without quiet places to do their homework. They may or may not use the library for those purposes — that’s up to them and their parents. But as long as the library is open, the door to our culture is not completely closed.

What’s that worth to you? What’s that worth to our country?

While we’re talking about education and democracy, it’s worth looking at an article in the Boston Globe from last week:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds.

They studied popular political falsehoods (like “we found WMDs in Iraq”) and whether people who believe them change their opinion when given the facts. For the most part they don’t, and many people just dig in deeper, believing even more strongly after someone has tried to correct them.

I’ll quibble with the idea that this is a “recent” discovery. My journalism reading project includes Walter Lippmann’s 1921 classic Public Opinion:

The orthodox theory holds that a public opinion constitutes a moral judgment on a group of facts. The theory I am suggesting is that, in the present state of education, a public opinion is primarily a moralized and codified version of the facts. I am arguing that the pattern of stereotypes at the center of our codes largely determines what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see them

When I think about how majority stereotypes of women, blacks, and gays/lesbians has changed since my childhood in the 1960s, though, I despair less about democracy than the Globe does. Stereotypes change, but only when people are confronted with new facts again and again, over a period of years.

Democracy works, but it works slowly, and only if lots of people are willing to insist on the truth day-in, day-out, while talking to their friends and co-workers over coffee.

Which brings us to the next story.

Respectable, Sensible Bigotry

Ever notice how often somebody portrayed as an innocent victim of political correctness turns out later to have been a flaming bigot all along?

Frank Rich connects the Mel Gibson dots. Critics who found Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” anti-Semitic were themselves tarred as anti-Christian bigots — until Mel got drunk and started ranting to police about “the f**king Jews”. More recently, tapes of Mel’s verbally abusive remarks to his girl friend have come out, laced with the N-word and other slurs.

That poor guy, victimized by those over-sensitive Jews and their baseless charges.

This week, it’s the Tea Party. The NAACP passed a resolution asking the Tea Party to “repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches”.

So of course recent Tea Party Express VP Mark Williams was all over the airwaves telling us who the real racists are: the NAACP, making their hateful charges against the fine upstanding white people of the Tea Party. Centrists and even some liberal pundits were taking a head-shaking why-did-you-have-to-start-this attitude towards the NAACP.

Then Williams overplayed his hand: He posted a parody letter from the NAACP president to President Lincoln asking to have slavery back:

We had a great gig.  Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house.  Please repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let us get back to where we belong.

Yeah, that’s not racist. It’s — you know — funny. Right? And so was the suggestion that the NAACP finds tax cuts racist because …

How will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?

Hilarious. Where does that humorless NAACP get off implying folks like this are racists?

I’ll let Ta-Nehisi Coates wrap up:

Racism tends to attract attention when it’s flagrant and filled with invective. But like all bigotry, the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping–positioning the bigot as the actual victim. So the gay do not simply want to marry, they want to convert our children into sin. The Jews do not merely want to be left in peace, they actually are plotting world take-over. And the blacks are not actually victims of American power, but beneficiaries of the war against hard-working whites. This is a respectable, more sensible, bigotry

His point: We can’t let that grade-school “I’m not but you are” taunt intimidate us away from pointing out bigotry wherever it shows up.

Immigration Economics

Do illegal immigrants help or hurt the U.S. economy? Arguments both ways sound very convincing, but have a lot of holes. I haven’t yet found an analysis I can endorse wholeheartedly.

report put out by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) finds that illegal immigrants get a net government subsidy (benefits minus taxes) of $113 billion a year. But if you crunch some numbers in the report itself, you find that $38 billion of that goes to educating the American-citizen children of the immigrants. Thats us investing in our citizens’ future, not a “benefit” to illegal immigrants. I’ve got to wonder how many similar factors inflate the numbers.

report by the Perryman Group estimated that making undocumented workers suddenly vanish (as in the movie A Day Without a Mexican) would lower GDP by $245 billion a year. However, its assumptions about the labor shortage in the native-born population are a lot less convincing now than they were when the report was published two years ago.

Since I can’t find or generate any trustworthy economic analysis, I’ll have to settle for a more anecdotal understanding.

One of the main characters in Nick Redding’s nonfiction book Methlandis Roland Jarvis, a native-born white American who starts out working in a meat-packing plant in Iowa, making $18 an hour with benefits. Over several years, the plant gets sold and resold, with each new owner slashing jobs and cutting wages (under the threat of closing the plant or moving it to Mexico), until workers make $6.50 an hour with no benefits. Jarvis tries to keep up his lifestyle by working extra hours (and smoking meth for extra energy), but eventually he gives that up to cook and deal meth full time.

A bunch of the people who take the low-wage no-benefit meat-packing jobs are illegal immigrants with some kind of phony paperwork. They do a hard, dirty and sometimes dangerous job that used to pay enough for an American worker to support a family and also pull his or her weight in the larger community through taxes. Now it doesn’t, so the plant workers (legal and illegal alike) are generating the kinds of costs the FAIR report tabulated: Their emergency-room visits and their kids’ education cost government more than their taxes cover. In essence, the workers are subsidized.

But who’s getting really getting that subsidy? Looking at the work and lifestyle of the immigrants, I don’t think it’s them. They earn what they get, and probably more.

Here’s what I see happening: The company pays its workers less than a living wage, and the government makes up the difference. To the extent that the meat-packing industry is competitive and efficient — not all industries are — the cost-reduction gets passed on to the consumer as lower meat prices. The rest is profit.

I think that’s typical. Whether we’re talking about cheap factory work, cheap child-care in our homes, cheap kitchen workers in our restaurants, cheap janitors in office buildings — the presence of illegal immigrants drives down costs. Some of that shows up in increased business profits and some in a lower cost-of-living for the rest of us. But it costs the government money.

It also costs unskilled American workers by driving down their wages — though it’s hard to tell how many of those jobs would just vanish overseas (maybe to be done by the same people who come here to do them now) if wages were higher.

Summing up: The subsidy FAIR noticed is just the visible piece of a larger social/economic policy decision to have a low-price low-wage economy. If we had an economy that respected hard work — one that paid workers a wage that allowed them to support both their families and the larger community — the subsidy would go away. But things would cost more.

In the absence of reliable numbers, I’ll just give my gut impression: I think middle and upper-class Americans do well out of illegal immigration, the working class not so well.

Disinformation Watch

Most people don’t want health care reform repealed.

Illegal votes by felons did not give Al Franken his seat in the Senate.

The “scandal” about the Justice Department “protecting” the fringy New Black Panther Party is completely trumped up. Newsweek concludes:

it’s not about a real investigation; it’s about staging an effective piece of political theater that hurts the Obama administration.

New British and Dutch reports say the same thing as every other official investigation: The only scandal in Climategate was stealing the researchers’ emails. Unfortunately, they can’t get the front-page coverage that the bogus stories got.

And finally, I’m not sure how you debunk something this nutty: A Republican Congressional candidate in Missouri claims Obama and the Democrats are taking away “the freedom — the ultimate freedom, to find your salvation, to get your salvation. And to find Christ, for me and you.” Don’t look at me — I said at the time that deporting the Holy Spirit was a bad idea.

Short Notes

Follow-up to last week: The NYT has yet another Israel/Palestine article with no precipitating event. Like the Kristof column I quoted last week, these reporters see the blockade failing to undermine Hamas:

Today Hamas has no rival here. It runs the schools, hospitals, courts, security services and — through smuggler tunnels from Egypt — the economy.

The best soap operas always find some way to stay fresh. Unwed pregnancy, break-upacrimony, drug charges, nude photos — and now the Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston wedding is back on.

Meanwhile, those family-values-destroying Clintons are having a wedding of their own: Former first-daughter Chelsea is getting married at age 30. There’s no baby. She’s just marrying a guy she’s known since her teens, after getting her bachelors from Stanford and a masters from Oxford. Dull, dull, dull.

An illuminating graph from Nate Silver:


The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com.

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  • kimc  On July 24, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I hope you come up with some way to make the media go back to being helpful and truthful. Good luck.

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