Tag Archives: journalism

The Election Is About the Country, Not the Candidates

Citizens shouldn’t let the media make us forget about ourselves.


Judging by the amount of media attention they got, these were the most important political stories of the week: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders agreed to debate, but then Trump backed out, leading Sanders supporters to launch the #ChickenTrump hashtag. A report on Hillary Clinton’s emails came out. A poll indicated that the California primary is closer than previously thought. Trump’s delegate total went over 50%. Elizabeth Warren criticized Trump, so he began calling her “Pocahontas”. Sanders demanded that Barney Frank be removed as the chair of the DNC’s platform committee. Trump told a California audience that the state isn’t in a drought and has “plenty of water“. Trump accused Bill Clinton of being a rapist, and brought up the 1990s conspiracy theory that Vince Foster was murdered. President Obama said that the prospect of a Trump presidency had foreign leaders “rattled“, and Trump replied that “When you rattle someone, that’s good.” Clinton charged that Trump had been rooting for the 2008 housing collapse. Pundits told us that the tone of the campaign was only going to get worse from here; Trump and Clinton have record disapproval ratings for presidential nominees, and so the debate will have to focus on making the other one even more unpopular.

If you are an American who follows political news, you probably heard or read most of these stories, and you may have gotten emotionally involved — excited or worried or angry — about one or more of them. But if at any time you took a step back from the urgent tone of the coverage, you might have wondered what any of it had to do with you, or with the country you live in. The United States has serious issues to think about and serious decisions to make about what kind of country it is or wants to be. This presidential election, and the congressional elections that are also happening this fall, will play an important role in those decisions.

That’s why I think it’s important, both in our own minds and in our interactions with each other, to keep pulling the discussion back to us and our country. The flaws and foibles and gaffes and strategies of the candidates are shiny objects that can be hard to ignore, and Trump in particular is unusually gifted at drawing attention. But the government of the United States is supposed to be “of the People, by the People, and for the People”. It’s supposed to be about us, not about them.

As I’ve often discussed before, the important issues of our country and how it will be governed, of the decisions we have to make and the implications those decisions will have, are not news in the sense that our journalistic culture understands it. Our sense of those concerns evolves slowly, and almost never changes significantly from one day to the next. It seldom crystallizes into events that are breaking and require minute-to-minute updates. At best, a breaking news event like the Ferguson demonstrations or the Baltimore riot will occasionally give journalists a hook on which to hang a discussion of an important issue that isn’t news, like our centuries-long racial divide. (Picture trying to cover it without the hook: “This just in: America’s racial problem has changed since 1865 and 1965, but it’s still there.”)

So let’s back away from the addictive soap opera of the candidates and try to refocus on the questions this election really ought to be about.

Who can be a real American?

In the middle of the 20th century (about the time I was born), if you had asked people anywhere in the world to describe “an American”, you’d have gotten a pretty clear picture: Americans were white and spoke English. They were Christians (with a few Jews mixed in, but they were assimilating and you probably couldn’t tell), and mostly Protestants. They lived in households where two parents — a man and a woman, obviously — were trying (or hoping) to raise at least two children. They either owned a house (that they probably still owed money on) or were saving to buy one. They owned at least one car, and hoped to buy a bigger and better one soon.

If you needed someone to lead or speak for a group of Americans, you picked a man. American women might get an education and work temporarily as teachers or nurses or secretaries, but only until they could find a husband and start raising children.

Of course, everyone knew that other kinds of people lived in America: blacks, obviously; Hispanics and various recent immigrants whose English might be spotty; Native Americans, who were still Indians then; Jews who weren’t assimilating and might make a nuisance about working on Saturday, or even wear a yarmulke in public; single people who weren’t looking to marry or raise children (but might be sexually active anyway); women with real careers; gays and lesbians (but not transgender people or even bisexuals, whose existence wasn’t recognized yet); atheists, Muslims, and followers of non-Biblical religions; the homeless and others who lived in long-term poverty; folks whose physical or mental abilities were outside the “normal” range; and so on.

But they were Americans-with-an-asterisk. Such people weren’t really “us”, but we were magnanimous enough to tolerate them living in our country — for which we expected them to be grateful.

Providing services for the “real” Americans was comparatively easy: You could do everything in English. You didn’t have to concern yourself with handicapped access or learning disabilities. You promoted people who fit your image of a leader, and didn’t worry about whether that was fair. You told whatever jokes real Americans found funny, because anybody those jokes might offend needed to get a sense of humor. The schools taught white male history and celebrated Christian holidays. Every child had two married parents, and you could assume that the mother was at home during the day. Everybody had a definite gender and was straight, so if you kept the boys and girls apart you had dealt with the sex issue.

If those arrangements didn’t work for somebody, that was their problem. If they wanted the system to work better for them, they should learn to be more normal.

It’s easy to imagine that this mid-20th-century Pleasantville America is ancient history now, but it existed in living memory and still figures as ideal in many people’s minds. Explicitly advocating a return to those days is rare. But that desire isn’t gone, it’s just underground.

For years, that underground nostalgia has figured in a wide variety of political issues. But it has been the particular genius of Donald Trump to pull them together and bring them as close to the surface as possible without making an explicit appeal to turn back the clock and re-impose the norms of that era. “Make America great again!” doesn’t exactly promise a return to Pleasantville, but for many people that’s what it evokes.

What, after all, does the complaint about political correctness amount to once you get past “Why can’t I get away with behaving like my grandfather did?”

We can picture rounding up and deporting undocumented Mexicans by the millions, because they’re Mexicans. They were never going to be real Americans anyway. Ditto for Muslims. It would have been absurd to stop letting Italians into the country because of Mafia violence, or to shut off Irish immigration because of IRA terrorism. But Muslims were never going to be real Americans anyway, so why not keep them out? (BTW: As I explained a few weeks ago, the excuse that the Muslim ban is “temporary” is bogus. If nobody can tell you when or how something is going to end, it’s not temporary.)

All the recent complaints about “religious liberty” fall apart once you dispense with the notion that Christian sensibilities deserve more respect than non-Christian ones, or that same-sex couples deserve less respect than opposite-sex couples.

On the other side, Black Lives Matter is asking us to address that underground, often subconscious, feeling that black lives really aren’t on the same level as white lives. If a young black man is dead, it just doesn’t have the same claim on the public imagination — or on the diligence of the justice system — that a white death would. How many black or Latina girls vanish during a news cycle that obsesses over some missing white girl? (For that matter, how many white presidents have seen a large chunk of the country doubt their birth certificates, or have been interrupted during State of the Union addresses by congressmen shouting “You lie!”?)

But bringing myself back to the theme: The issue here isn’t Trump, it’s us. Do we want to think of some Americans as more “real” than others, or do we want to continue the decades-long process of bringing more Americans into the mainstream?

That question won’t be stated explicitly on your ballot this November, like a referendum issue. But it’s one of the most important things we’ll be deciding.

What role should American power play in the world?

I had a pretty clear opinion on that last question, but I find this one much harder to call.

The traditional answer, which goes back to the Truman administration and has existed as a bipartisan consensus in the foreign-policy establishment ever since, is that American power is the bedrock on which to build a system of alliances that maintains order in the world. The archetype here is NATO, which has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years.

That policy involves continuing to spend a lot on our military, and risks getting us involved in wars from time to time. (Within that establishment consensus, though, there is still variation in how willing we should be to go to war. The Iraq War, for example, was a choice of the Bush administration, not a necessary result of the bipartisan consensus.) The post-Truman consensus views America as “the indispensable nation”; without us, the world community lacks both the means and the will to stand up to rogue actors on the world stage.

A big part of our role is in nuclear non-proliferation. We intimidate countries like Iran out of building a bomb, and we extend our nuclear umbrella over Japan so that it doesn’t need one. The fact that no nuclear weapon has been fired in anger since 1945 is a major success of the establishment consensus.

Of our current candidates, Hillary Clinton (who as Secretary of State negotiated the international sanctions that forced Iran into the recent nuclear deal) is the one most in line with the foreign policy status quo. Bernie Sanders is more identified with strengthened international institutions which — if they could be constructed and work — would make American leadership more dispensable. To the extent that he has a clear position at all, Donald Trump is more inclined to pull back and let other countries fend for themselves. He has, for example, said that NATO is “obsolete” and suggested that we might be better off if Japan had its own nuclear weapons and could defend itself against North Korea’s nukes. On the other hand, he has also recently suggested that we bomb Libya, so it’s hard to get a clear handle on whether he’s more or less hawkish than Clinton.

Should we be doing anything about climate change?

Among scientists, there really are two sides to the climate-change debate: One side believes that the greenhouse gases we are pumping into the atmosphere threaten to change the Earth’s climate in ways that will cause serious distress to millions or even billions of people, and the other side is funded by the fossil fuel industry.

It’s really that simple. There are honest scientific disagreements about the pace of climate change and its exact mechanisms, but the basic picture is clear to any scientist who comes to the question without a vested interest: Burning fossil fuels is raising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. An increase in greenhouse gases causes the Earth to radiate less heat into space. So you would expect to see a long-term warming trend since the Industrial Revolution got rolling, and in fact that’s what the data shows — despite the continued existence of snowballs, which has been demonstrated by a senator funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels is both convenient and fun, at least in the short term. And if you don’t put any price on the long-term damage you’re doing, it’s also economical. In reality, doing nothing about climate change is like going without health insurance or refusing to do any maintenance on your house or car. Those decisions can improve your short-term budget picture, which now might have room for that Hawaiian vacation your original calculation said you couldn’t afford. Your mom might insist that you should account for your risk of getting sick or needing some major repair, but she’s always been a spoilsport.

That’s the debate that’s going on now. If you figure in the real economic costs of letting the Earth get hotter and hotter — dealing with tens of millions of refugees from regions that will soon be underwater, building a seawall around Florida, moving our breadbasket from Iowa to wherever the temperate zone is going to be in 50 years, rebuilding after the stronger and more frequent hurricanes that are coming, and so on, then burning fossil fuels is really, really expensive. But if you decide to let future generations worry about those costs and just get on with enjoying life now, then coal and oil are still cheap compared to most renewable energy sources.

So what should we do?

Unfortunately, nobody has come up with a good way to re-insert the costs of climate change into the market without involving government, or to do any effective mitigation without international agreements among governments, of which the recent Paris Agreement is just a baby step in the right direction. And to one of our political parties, government is a four-letter word and world government is an apocalyptic horror. So the split inside the Republican Party is between those who pretend climate change isn’t happening, and those who think nothing can or should be done about it. (Trump is on the pretend-it-isn’t-happening side.)

President Obama has been taking some action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but without cooperation from Congress his powers are pretty limited. (It’s worth noting how close we came to passing a cap-and-trade bill to put a price on carbon before the Republicans took over Congress in 2010. What little Obama’s managed to do since may still get undone by the Supreme Court, particularly if its conservative majority is restored.)

Both Clinton and Sanders take climate change seriously. As is true across the board, Sanders’ proposals are simpler and more sweeping (like “ban fracking”) while Clinton’s are wonkier and more complicated. (In a debate, she listed the problems with fracking — methane leaks, groundwater pollution, earthquakes — and proposed controlling them through regulation. She concluded: “By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”) But like Obama, neither of them will accomplish much if we can’t flip Congress.

Trump, meanwhile, is doing his best impersonation of an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. He thinks climate change is a hoax, wants to reverse President Obama’s executive orders to limit carbon pollution, has pledged to undo the Paris Agreement, and to get back to burning more coal.

How should we defend ourselves from terrorism?

There are two points of view on ISIS and Al Qaeda-style terrorism, and they roughly correspond to the split between the two parties.

From President Obama’s point of view, the most important thing about battle with terrorism is to keep it contained. Right now, a relatively small percentage of the world’s Muslims support ISIS or Al Qaeda, while the vast majority are hoping to find a place for themselves inside the world order as it exists. (That includes 3.3 million American Muslims. If any more than a handful of them supported terrorism, we’d be in serious trouble.) We want to keep tightening the noose on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and keep closing in on terrorist groups elsewhere in the world, while remaining on good terms with the rest of the Muslim community.

From this point of view — which I’ve described in more detail here and illustrated with an analogy here — the worst thing that could happen would be for these terrorist incidents to touch off a world war between Islam and Christendom.

The opposite view, represented not just by Trump but by several of the Republican rivals he defeated, is that we are already in such a war, so we should go all out and win it: Carpet bomb any territory ISIS holds, without regard to civilian casualties. Discriminate openly against Muslims at home and ban any new Muslims from coming here.

Like Obama, I believe that the main result of these policies would be to convince Muslims that there is no place for them in a world order dominated by the United States. Rather than a few dozen pro-ISIS American terrorists, we might have tens of thousands. If we plan to go that way, we might as well start rounding up 3.3 million Americans right now.

Clinton and Sanders are both roughly on the same page with Obama. Despite being Jewish and having lived on a kibbutz, Sanders is less identified with the current Israeli government than either Obama or Clinton, to the extent that makes a difference.

Can we give all Americans a decent shot at success? How?

Pre-Trump, Republicans almost without exception argued that all we need to do to produce explosive growth and create near-limitless economic opportunity for everybody is to get government out of the way: Lower taxes, cut regulations, cut government programs, negotiate free trade with other countries, and let the free market work its magic. (Jeb Bush, for example, argued that his small-government policies as governor of Florida — and not the housing bubble that popped shortly after he left office — had led to 4% annual economic growth, so similar policies would do the same thing for the whole country.)

Trump has called this prescription into question.

If you think about it, the economy is rigged, the banking system is rigged, there’s a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours, and that’s why a lot of you haven’t had an effective wage increase in 20 years.

However, he has not yet replaced it with any coherent economic view or set of policies. His tax plan, for example, is the same sort of let-the-rich-keep-their-money proposal any other Republican might make. He promises to renegotiate our international trade agreements in ways that will bring back all the manufacturing jobs that left the country over the last few decades, but nobody’s been able to explain exactly how that would work.

At least, though, Trump is recognizing the long-term stagnation of America’s middle class. Other Republicans liked to pretend that was all Obama’s fault, as if the 2008 collapse hadn’t happened under Bush, and — more importantly — as if the overall wage stagnation didn’t date back to Reagan.

One branch of liberal economics, the one that is best exemplified by Bernie Sanders, argues that the problem is the over-concentration of wealth at the very top. This can devolve into a the-rich-have-your-money argument, but the essence of it is more subtle than that: Over-concentration of wealth has created a global demand problem. When middle-class and poor people have more money, they spend it on things whose production can be increased, like cars or iPhones or Big Macs. That increased production creates jobs and puts more money in the pockets of poor and middle-class people, resulting in a virtuous demand/production/demand cycle that is more-or-less the definition of economic growth.

By contrast, when very rich people have more money, they are more likely to spend it on unique items, like van Gogh paintings or Mediterranean islands. The production of such things can’t be increased, so what we see instead are asset bubbles, where production flattens and the prices of rare goods get bid higher and higher.

For the last few decades, we’ve been living in an asset-bubble world rather than an economic-growth world. The liberal solution is to tax that excess money away from the rich, and spend it on things that benefit poor and middle-class people, like health care and infrastructure.

However, there is a long-term problem that neither liberal nor conservative economics has a clear answer for: As artificial intelligence creeps into our technology, we get closer to a different kind of technological unemployment than we have seen before, in which people of limited skills may have nothing they can offer the economy. (In A Farewell to Alms Gregory Clark makes a scary analogy: In 1901, the British economy provided employment for 3 million horses, but almost all those jobs have gone away. Why couldn’t that happen to people?)

As we approach that AI-driven world, the connection between production and consumption — which has driven the world economy for as long as there has been a world economy — will have to be rethought. I don’t see anybody in either party doing that.


So what major themes have I left out? Put them in the comments.

No, Donald Sterling Isn’t the Victim

Wednesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced his response to the recordings in which L. A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling makes racist statements: Sterling is fined $2.5 million and banned for life from interacting with the Clippers or any other NBA team. Silver can’t force Sterling to sell his team, but he says the other NBA owners collectively can, and he’s going to ask them to do so.

Trust Fox News’ Megan Kelly* to address the side of the story the liberal media doesn’t want to face: Isn’t the rich white guy the real victim here?

The question is whether the deprivation of his property rights — in terms of his ownership rights of a sports team … of basically taking away his livelihood, is a slippery slope. … Is this the future of America, where private conversations between two people who are supposedly in a relationship wind up going public and then somebody who makes clearly inappropriate remarks (to put it charitably) has everything taken away from them?

In this telling of the story, Sterling is the victim of two injuries: the original invasion of privacy, and then the reaction of the NBA commissioner, which might force Sterling to sell his team.

In response, I would paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: An NBA owner has a constitutional right to be a racist, but he has no constitutional right to be an NBA owner.

The invasion of privacy is definitely an injury, but it’s the kind of thing that has been happening to public figures (and occasionally non-public figures) for some time, usually without negative comment from Kelly. Just this week, there was another Rob Ford crack-smoking video. Remember the rant Alec Baldwin left on his daughter’s answering machine or when he was recorded yelling homophobic slurs at paparazzi? Or Mel Gibson? John Kerry got in trouble this week because someone leaked a recording of a closed-door meeting. Both Romney and Obama had trouble with secret recordings. The whole ACORN sting video was based on secret recordings (which were then edited to make them sound worse). Linda Tripp secretly recorded Monica Lewinsky. ESPN’s Erin Andrews was filmed naked through a hotel-room peephole, and let’s not even get into all the sex tapes and nude photos of ordinary people that have become public without their consent. (Here’s an example of someone who really lost her livelihood.)

I’m happy Megan Kelly has finally noticed this issue, now that there’s a racist billionaire to defend.

But “property rights” is a complete red herring. First, the obvious: Being forced to sell something is not the same as having it (or “everything”) taken away from you. Sterling will get a good price for the Clippers and continue to be a billionaire. His “livelihood” is not at stake.

Second, an NBA team is not an independent business like a barber shop or a diner. The NBA is a cartel, not a collection of independent businesses, and the value of the Clippers comes from its membership in the cartel, not its potential earnings as an independent basketball team. The cartel has rules that the owners have agreed to. If we start defending Sterling’s right to do what he wants with his team, regardless of what the league agreement says, then we’d also have to defend the other owners’ right to do what they want with their teams — like refuse to schedule games against the Clippers, making Sterling’s team more-or-less worthless.

There’s a reason sports teams are called “franchises”. You may own a McDonald’s franchise, but if you bring shame to the McDonald’s chain, I’m sure they have a way to get that franchise away from you. Same thing here.

In addition to shame, Sterling is bringing labor problems to the NBA.

Players’ union Vice President Roger Mason Jr. said Tuesday he spoke to representatives from every playoff team about the possibility of boycotting the upcoming postseason games in solidarity against any ruling that didn’t include a mandate for Sterling to sell the Clippers.

The NBA is 76% black, and the idea that the white (but for Michael Jordan) owners don’t respect them because of their race must always be in the background. In addition, Sterling’s remarks made it clear that he has a paternalistic view of ownership in general. Asked about his players, Sterling said:

I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?

The players don’t earn their money — much less earn money for Sterling — Sterling “gives it to them”. This is straight out of Atlas Shrugged, when John Galt tells the workers at Hank Rearden’s steel mill:

Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of [a medieval] blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

So players are threatening work stoppages, sponsors are pulling out, and fans are protesting. In the lingo of another famous cartel — the Mafia — Sterling’s continued ownership is “bad for business”. The other bosses need to take him out.


* Kelly was the first one to draw my attention, but in fairness Sterling-as-victim has been a popular topic in the conservative media. See also Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, John Hinderaker, National Review

Are you a “news” addict?

Every week, the so-called “news” provided by 24/7 cable channels and their web sites includes a hefty helping of gossip: stuff you really don’t need to know that is designed to snag your attention. Worse, this kind of stuff is addictive; you can find yourself thinking about it when you’re supposed to be working or resting or listening to your spouse. Like any addict, your mind drifts into wondering when you’ll be able to turn on the TV or check the internet to get your next dose.

Believe me, I speak from experience. Back in the 90s, my attention got captured by addictive stories like the O. J. Simpson and the Microsoft antitrust trials. They seemed harmless at first, but before long my brain was not my own. They took mental cycles away from the important issues in my personal life, and from the issues that needed my attention as a citizen. Instead, my thoughts and emotions were focused on whatever CNN* decided to hype that week, stuff that usually had nothing to do with me.

One beautiful summer day I went to a peaceful park, imagining that I would work out the plot holes in a piece of fiction I’d been trying to write. Instead, I spent the time raging about Elian Gonzalez. That was when I knew I had a problem. I had to go cold turkey.

That’s why the Weekly Sift is the way it is. I designed it to be the informational equivalent of a coffee-and-juice bar for former alcoholics. You can hang out here, stay informed about the things a citizen needs to know, and never hear about the Casey Anthony trial. We can even talk politics without agonizing over whether Hillary is going to run again or not**.

Most weeks, providing that hype-free space feels like enough. But these last two weeks have seen such an enormous concentration of addictive not-news or almost-news stories that simply ignoring them doesn’t seem sufficient. (I had to listen to President Obama’s climate speech on C-SPAN, because CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all had junk news to cover instead.) Many of my regular readers, I suspect, have been captured by these stories, because it’s hard not to be. So this week I’m doing an intervention. If you’re obsessing over any of the stories below (or something similar), think about whether that’s the best use of your time, your mind, and your emotional energy.

As I said, I’ve been there, so I know how you want to respond: “OK, maybe I am spending too much time on this, but I enjoy it. What’s wrong with that?”

Alcoholics will tell you the same thing. They enjoy drinking. They enjoy barfing in your car. They enjoy waking up with a headache and not knowing how they got here.

Take a step back from your “enjoyment” of addictive stories and look at their larger effects. Do you really enjoy staying up until 2 a.m. to put the 400th comment on some internet article (because otherwise the 399th guy wouldn’t understand what a jerk he is)? When you finally leave the TV, are you happier than when you sat down in front of it? More relaxed? Better able to deal with the rest of your life?

Or have the gossip pushers gotten their hooks into you? Has your mind stopped being your own?

The Zimmerman trial. Trials are classic soap opera, but the only people who should devote day-by-day attention to them are defendants, jurors, and the lawyers and judges who are paid for their time. Everybody else should just wait to see how they come out. A typical day at a trial produces maybe a paragraph’s worth of new information, but that paragraph can take hours to unfold and then pundits can speculate endlessly about what tomorrow’s paragraph will say. Minus the 15 seconds it takes to read a paragraph, all that time is wasted.

The Zimmerman trial is particularly insidious, because you can almost convince yourself it’s news. The Trayvon Martin case as a whole is worth knowing about, because of what it says about racism in America. (So was O. J.’s case, if you could keep the long view and not develop an opinion about Kato Kaelin’s character.) That’s why I covered it twice last year (Trayvon Martin: the Racism Whites Don’t Want to See and Prejudice, Bigotry, and “Reasonable” Racism). When the trial is over, it may be worth looking back to see how those social issues played out in this context. But don’t waste hours pondering the daily drip-drip-drip of information.

You don’t know George Zimmerman, and whether he spends 20 years in prison or walks away free has no effect on your life. So if you find yourself reacting emotionally to obscure points in the rules of evidence, consider the possibility that you may have a problem.

The Snowden chase. Like the Zimmerman trial, this spins out of a legitimate news story, but isn’t news. As I explained in the previous Sift, Edward Snowden is Not the Issue. So far, Snowden has told us a bunch of stuff about NSA spying that the government should have told us a long time ago. Why he did it, how he did it, where he is now, and whether he’ll make it to a country willing to grant him asylum — it’ll be a great movie someday, but it doesn’t matter. The Fourth Amendment matters; the NSA spying on innocent American citizens matters.

Paula Deen. This story contains a tiny sliver of some important issues: How much should we care about what TV stars do when they’re off camera? And if you imagined that racism was ancient history in America, well, clearly not.

But those issues came and went in a brief flicker. Now it’s about whether she’s been sufficiently contrite, and whether white people are persecuted by “reverse racism” or “political correctness” or some other nonsense. (I’ve already said everything I have to say about that in The Distress of the Privileged.)

If you never watched Deen’s show on the Food Network, then the story has no effect on you whatsoever. If you loved her show, don’t worry, she’ll have another one before long. Don Imus came back; so will Paula Deen.

Aaron Hernandez. I’m a Patriot fan, I’ve enjoyed watching Hernandez run after making a catch, and I still refuse to pay attention to this case. O. J.’s runs were even more fun to watch, but his murder trial took up a chunk of my life that I’ll never get back.

I’m going to continue to worry about whether Tom Brady will have anybody to throw to next season. But the Patriots have released Hernandez and the rest of us should too. A jury will decide whether he’s a murderer. The rest of us don’t need to have an opinion.

What is news anyway? News is a recent or ongoing public event that affects you either in your personal life or in your role as a citizen. You could imagine doing something about news. If it’s large-scale news, it might change how you vote or cause you to contact your elected representatives. Maybe you’ll write a check or attend a demonstration or organize to help the victims. Or maybe you won’t end up doing any of those things, but you could, because the story affects your life.

Smaller-scale news concerns stuff you might do in your personal life: a new restaurant is opening, the highway is under construction, 4th of July fireworks will be somewhere different this year.

Sometimes news changes your perspective or opens your eyes to wonder. Apollo 17’s Big Blue Marble photo was news.

Addictive gossip raises the same do-something feelings as a war or a famine, but since it doesn’t really touch any part of your life, all you can “do” is invest more energy in the story itself. So you learn more details, form more opinions about the characters, speculate about what might happen next, and generally just get more and more wound up. Perversely, you end up more motivated to do something — but there’s nothing you can do — than you feel in response to personal and political situations that are crying out for your action.

Worst of all, the addictive story gives you a chance to keep repeating all those maxims that make you unhappy and prevent you from achieving your potential: The world is rigged against people like you, nasty people are everywhere, justice never really triumphs. Maybe your negative maxims are different, but you know what they are.

Take a step back and look around. Are you really enjoying this? If you never thought about it again, would it ever come back to bite you?

Let it go. There’s a world out there that needs your attention.


* The Fox/MSNBC shouting match hadn’t developed yet. It was a simpler time.

** It’ll be fine. Either way, there will be someone worth voting for, at least in the primaries. Trust me on this.

How do you know what you know?

why the internet isn’t making us wiser

If you’d never experienced the flood of information that comes from a revolutionary new technology, you might expect it to power growth in everything downstream from information: knowledge, understanding, and even wisdom. If it’s easier to find things out, then people should know more, understand more, and make better choices. You might even expect more consensus. Ignorant people can come to blows debating whether Kansas is north or south of Nebraska, but the more we know and understand about the world we all live in, the more agreement we should find.

Since you’re living through the internet revolution right now, though, you know better. More knowledge? Maybe. Understanding? Hard to say. But wisdom? Surely you jest. And consensus … some days we seem lucky just to avoid civil war.

Nate Silver thinks we could have seen this coming, because the same thing happened in the last information revolution. Eventually Gutenberg’s printing press led to the Enlightenment, democracy, modern science, and the Industrial Revolution. But that light came at the end of a nasty 300-year tunnel of constant strife and near-genocidal religious wars. In the Thirty Years War alone “the male population of the German states was reduced by almost half.”

But why? Nate explains:

The informational shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

Reducing that to a bumpersticker: TMI equals polarization.

Picture it: Before Gutenberg, baptism was baptism. The priest did it, and if we wondered what it meant or why he did it that way, maybe we could ask him and maybe he’d explain by waving in the direction of a Bible that some monk had spent years producing by hand. (You could get your own — in Latin, a language that neither you nor Moses ever spoke — for about the cost of a Mercedes today.)

After Gutenberg, you say babies can be baptized by sprinkling water on them, while I accept only full-submersion adult baptism. We each own pamphlets from our own theologians, quoting passages of scripture that we have each checked in our translated Bibles at home. We each belong to religious communities that agree with us, and our respective church libraries are stocked with many other pamphlets listing the outrages that the opposing community has committed against us and providing reams of evidence proving that the conflict is all their fault.

What can we do but kill each other?

Information is great when you have some reasonable way of processing it. But when you don’t, it’s overwhelming and even threatening. If you try to pay attention to all of it, you’ll freeze. And then the people who didn’t freeze will eat your lunch — or eat you for lunch.

There are two easy ways to deal with information overload:

  • Submit unquestioningly to an authority who decides what’s what.
  • Find a simple worldview that pleasingly organizes the wild flood of facts and interpretations, and then ally with people who subscribe to that worldview.

Both choices are cultish, but the second can seem downright enlightened, at least from the inside. Unlike the unquestioning follower, you’re always learning new facts and interpretations. You’re getting better and better at explaining why your tribe’s view is right and the opposing view is wrong. And you do ask questions, but you’ve learned to ask the right questions — unlike those mindless sheep in the opposing tribe.

In other words, you live inside a tribal bubble that lets pleasing information in and keeps disturbing information out. The information flood actually helps you do this, because the more details, the easier to cherry-pick support for whatever you want to believe.

These delusions are easy to see in other people: conspiracy theorists, global-warming deniers, Birthers, and so on. You can never win an argument against such folks, because there is always more information you haven’t explained, some new micro-analysis that “proves” Obama’s birth certificate is fake or explains why the world is really cooling. You never reach the end of it, precisely because the 21st-century information barrel is bottomless.

That’s why liberals like me — and probably Nate Silver more than anybody — had to love watching Republicans cope with the election returns. Nate had dispassionately put together a prediction model and he faithfully ran new polling data through it every day. It turned out to be down-the-line accurate, but until the votes were actually counted he was vilified by people who wanted to believe Romney would win. And not just ignorantly vilified, vilified with spreadsheets and graphs and detailed explanations of what he must be doing wrong.

It’s rare to run into such a perfect bubble-pricking.

But Silver’s book (published before the election) isn’t about self-congratulation. It’s about why accurate prediction is hard and how to do it better. Each chapter describes a prediction-making community — meteorologists, baseball stat geeks, poker players, etc. — and draws some general lesson from their collective success or failure.

Some of those lessons are technical, but a few general-public themes come through:

  • Foxes beat hedgehogs. People who have one big idea do badly in an information flood, because they can always explain away their failures without changing their big idea. But people who juggle multiple competing ideas can use new data to develop the good ones and discredit the bad ones.
  • Data doesn’t interpret itself. The best predictions don’t come from pure pattern matching, but from a plausible theory that is then proven by experiment. If you just pattern-match, you’ll end up modeling the noise rather than the signal.
  • Make specific predictions so you can recognize your mistakes. Since it always rains eventually, if you aren’t specific about when you expect rain and how much, you’ll always be able to claim you were right — and you won’t learn anything.
  • Be methodical. If you don’t define how you’re going to judge your results, the temptation to cherry-pick will overwhelm you.

Always in the background lies this lesson: Bubbles don’t just happen to other people. It’s a universal human tendency in the face of too much information. If you’re not constantly on guard — and maybe even if you are — you will fall prey to it.

Western civilization came out of the Gutenberg Tunnel when it developed more rigorous collective methods of handling the increased information flow: Science, most obviously, but also market capitalism, journalism, and constitutional democracies that could balance majority rule with tolerance for minority rights. Maybe a similar leap will get us through the Internet Tunnel eventually — better sooner than later.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have a less sweeping focus: How are you personally going to cope?

If we continue the Gutenberg analogy, there’s a clear analog to the priest and the universal church he represented: the editor and the culture of journalistic objectivity.

Once upon a time, national news outlets were few and were controlled by gatekeepers who told you “the way it is“. Every evening, the remarkably similar news departments of the three major networks told you what you needed to know. If you wanted more detail, you read a daily newspaper or weekly news magazines, but even they wouldn’t give you a fundamentally different worldview.

As I’ve described in more detail elsewhere, this system was both good and bad. (The same could be said of the pre-Gutenberg Catholic Church). The gatekeepers tried to be accurate, and they had the power to hold a story back until they could verify it. So rumors got squashed, hucksters were weeded out, and special-interest groups couldn’t trump up a story out of nothing. And because the gatekeepers defined news by what people should know rather than what they wanted to know, the Vietnam War never vanished from public awareness the way the Afghan War often has.

On the downside, the range of views presented was narrow. Only by staging artificial public events (like Martin Luther King’s March on Washington) could marginalized groups push their message through the editorial bottleneck.

Now that’s all gone. There is no priest, or rather there are too many would-be priests sprinkling dubious holy water in all directions.

In essence, we are all editors now. We used to get a filtered flow of information, pre-tested and pre-sanitized by experts. Now we’re exposed to the raw flood, which we have to test and sanitize for ourselves. So we all need to learn the ways of thought that used to only be taught in journalism school.

That’s what Blur is about.

A lot of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s advice is common sense. Before you react to a news article or factoid, you need to take a step back and judge it like an editor: Where does this information come from? Are the sources in a position to know? Do they have reason to lie? Am I just being told a story, or are there checkable facts here? Has anybody checked them? What is left out of this article? Does it raise obvious questions that are not answered? If the article focuses on only a few characters in the story, would other characters tell it differently? And so on. If you have a critical, analytical mind, the questions aren’t hard to generate once you realize that you need to take a step back and judge.

I found one piece of their analysis very insightful, and I may start using their terminology. They identify three models of journalism: verification, assertion, and affirmation. I don’t like how they present affirmation (probably because they belong to the verification tribe and the Weekly Sift is affirmation journalism), but the distinctions themselves are worthwhile.

Journalism of verification. This is the gatekeeper model of the Cronkite Era and the ideal that you will hear expressed by the editors of publications like the New York Times. (For now let’s leave alone the question of how well they live up to that ideal.) Check everything. Get it right before you publish. Be objective. Be complete. Put a wall between news and opinion.

Journalism of assertion. The model most often seen on CNN. Put newsmakers on camera and see what they say. (If you can only get them on camera by agreeing not to raise certain subjects, fine.) Let viewers judge for themselves whether they’re being lied to. Get information out as quickly as possible, even if you haven’t checked that it’s true. Strive for balance rather than accuracy; let liberals and conservatives alike spin the story for your audience, and then “leave it there” rather than check who’s right.

Journalism of affirmation. The model shared by Fox News, the nighttime line-up of MSNBC, and (mostly) the Weekly Sift. Have a point of view and attract an audience that (mostly) shares that view.

Reading Blur, you will get the idea that verification is the gold standard, while assertion and affirmation are in some way illegitimate. (I was struck by how often Rachel Maddow — who I admire — came up as a bad example.) I’d express this differently: assertion and affirmation journalism are illegitimate if they pretend to be verification journalism.

That is my biggest objection to Fox News — the pretense that they’re “fair and balanced”. If they billed themselves as “interpreting the world through a conservative prism”, I’d respect them more.

Affirmation journalism is legitimate to the extent that it’s honest and tries to serve its audience rather than pander to them so their attention can be sold to advertisers. Like verification journalists, an affirmation journalist should be trying to get it right, and also should provide a verification trail (that’s what the links are for on the Weekly Sift), honestly represent the people s/he quotes, endorse only arguments s/he believes are valid, not intentionally hide facts or points of view from its audience, and so on. (That’s my other problem with Fox. I don’t think they’re just conservative. I think they repeat talking points they know are false and use frames designed to deceive.)

In short, I think affirmation (and assertion too) can be done well. Rachel Maddow isn’t just Sean Hannity’s mirror image.

Tying this back to Nate Silver and the bubble tendency: Part of being honest and doing affirmation journalism well is recognizing the constant danger of winding up in a delusional bubble. Because there is a real world out there, and it will bite you if you turn your back on it, as Fox News viewers discovered on election night.

So serving you as a reader means not pleasing you too well. I could tell you a lot of things that would make you feel good about yourself and say “Hell yes!”. But some of them would set you up for a comeuppance.

And as for the horrors that might still await in the Internet Tunnel: Wishing to be out the other side doesn’t make it so, and affirmation journalism is popular because the priesthood of verification journalism is broken; it doesn’t know how to handle the flood. Maybe someday they will figure it out, or some new information-processing methodology will burst onto the scene the way science did in the 1600s. But for now, all I know how to do is to choose my simplifying assumptions as best I can, revisit them from time to time, and proceed honestly from there.

Walking Back Mr. Daisey and other short notes

As part of a longer article on manufacturing a couple months ago, I linked to This American Life’s episode on Mike Daisey, whose one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steven Jobs” told about worker abuse at the FoxConn plants in China that make iPhones and iPads.

Well, This America Life just retracted that episode. They did an entire new episode explaining what’s wrong with the old one.

Retractions are always tricky, because a listener’s reflex reaction is to forget the whole thing. Never mind. It wasn’t true. That’s not really appropriate here, because (as Ira Glass says in the new episode):

We did factcheck the story before we put it on the radio. But in factchecking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.

But what’s not true is what Mike said about his own trip to China.

In other words, Mike Daisey fictionalized the story by putting himself in the middle of it.

As best as we can tell, Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads.

And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.

So the facts you think you know about how iPhones are made — those are true. What’s false is the emotional heft of the story, the stuff that made you pay attention and take it seriously.

In Daisey’s defense, he got into this position in small steps. Fictionalization is a perfectly acceptable technique of theater, which is his monologue’s intended medium. If you understood that the actor Mike Daisey was playing a character “Mike Daisey” who dramatized what the author Mike Daisey had learned in his research — then you weren’t fooled at all.

Where Daisey went wrong was that he stayed in character when interviewed by This American Life, and let himself be presented to TAL’s audience as if he also were a journalist, and as if his story met TAL’s usual journalistic standards.

To their credit, TAL went the extra mile to correct all that. If only all journalists would do the same.


I always have a tough time deciding whether to call your attention to the crazy proposals in state legislatures. The 50 states have hundreds of legislators apiece, so there’s always some lunatic thing on the docket somewhere. Most of them amount to nothing, but you could be pointlessly outraged by them 24/7 if you wanted.

Right now, for example, bills under consideration in Arizona and Kansas would protect a doctor who intentionally lies to a pregnant woman about birth defects in her fetus. Why would a doctor do that? To prevent an abortion, of course.

So the misled woman (and possibly her husband) ends up on the hook to care for the child into the indefinite future, possibly at the cost of millions of dollars. She may or may not find this to be a rewarding life, but whatever else she had hoped to do in this incarnation is over now.

Under current law, she might get some help by suing the doctor who lied to her. But not if this bill passes.

Why do these proposals deserve your attention? Because a similar law is already on the books in Oklahoma (where I assume loco-weed sprouts through every crack in the sidewalk). That fact elevates it above the everyday-insanity level.


Watch this and explain to me why Pat Robertson is known as a family-values guy.


If your conservative relatives are telling you that ObamaCare’s cost estimate has doubled since Congress passed the ACA, they’re repeating what Fox News is telling them. Jonathan Cohn explains how they’re being misled.

Another baseless rumor that is circulating in those multiply-forwarded conservative emails: Muslims are exempt from the ACA’s insurance mandate. Nope.


So the money supply is way up and inflation is no big deal. How long does that have to stay true before Stockholm revokes Milton Friedman’s Nobel Prize?


A Goldman Sachs exec blew the whistle on his way out the door. Greg Smith wrote an op-ed: Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs in Wednesday’s NYT. His point: Goldman has lost its moral compass, and is now exploiting its clients rather than trying to make money for them.

Several people have pointed out that me-and-the-client-against-the-world wasn’t much of a moral compass to begin with. Dan Denzer parodied:

When I joined the Sith, the mission was all about bringing peace and order to the galaxy.

Robert Reich argues that loss of moral fiber isn’t why investment-bank behavior changed. It changed because government stopped looking over bankers’ shoulders.


While we’re on Robert Reich’s blog, his post on public vs. private morality nails something important.

Republicans have morality upside down. … America’s problem isn’t a breakdown in private morality. It’s a breakdown in public morality. What Americans do in their bedrooms is their own business. What corporate executives and Wall Street financiers do in boardrooms and executive suites affects all of us.

There is moral rot in America but it’s not found in the private behavior of ordinary people. It’s located in the public behavior of people who control our economy and are turning our democracy into a financial slush pump.


Rick Santorum’s statements about euthanasia in the Netherlands were way off. But when a Dutch journalist raised the issue with a campaign spokesman, he got no contrition whatsoever, just a repeated statement that Santorum is “a strong pro-life person”. Steve Benen sums up on MaddowBlog:

Santorum being ” a strong pro-life person” apparently gives him license to make up nonsense about the Netherlands.


Even though I’m an avid Kindle-user, I have fond memories of physical encyclopedias, from the World Book my parents bought when I was in second grade to the Britannica that was the first big purchase my wife and I made together.

Yeah, we reclaimed shelf space eons ago by giving those volumes away, and I contribute each year to the Wikimedia Foundation (and consider it a good deal in light of how much I use Wikipedia). But I felt a pang of nostalgic regret when I heard that Britannica will no longer publish a print edition. Kids of the future will never have the experience of sitting behind a stack of books taller than they are.

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, however, is doing a happy-dance on Britannica’s grave. He even makes a certain amount of sense, the way unsentimental people usually do.


Ever seen a skypunch before?


Rush Limbaugh and most of the rest of conservative talk-radio is broadcast by Clear Channel Communications. Know who owns Clear Channel? Mitt Romney’s old firm, Bain Capital.

Now Look What You Made Me Do

The last two weeks have seen a widespread violent crack-down on non-violent protesters, the like of which has not occurred in the United States in many years. So far the police have been using non-lethal weapons like pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, sonic cannons, and the old-fashioned nightstick, so there is not a body count to report. But the difference between this suppression of dissent and the ones in Cairo that President Obama denounced as far back as last January is largely of degree and not of kind.

You would not suspect this from the coverage in the mainstream American media, which has been doing it’s usual even-handed he-said/she-said thing. Protesters “clash with police” reports the New York Times, not specifying that protesters’ eyes clashed with police pepper spray or that protesters’ heads and stomachs clashed with police nightsticks. “Violence erupted” said New York Magazine, as if violence were some volcanic process independent of human decisions.

AllVoices anchor Veronica Roberts reported that Iraq veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull “after he was caught in the violence that erupted between police and protesters”. Olsen was not “caught” in anything; he was protesting peacefully when police shot him in the head with a tear gas canister (perhaps intentionally). (He may have suffered brain damage and was still unable to speak several days later.)

(Even this morning’s NYT article about the coverage of Occupy Wall Street says nothing about the coverage of police attacks. The Times seems unaware that there could be an issue here.)

But this shouldn’t be a contest between my rants and the rants on Fox News. The only way to appreciate what is going on is to look at the pictures and watch the video for yourself. In this video, the camera-holder is slowly walking parallel to (and maybe 60 feet away from) a line of unthreatened Oakland police when one of them decides to shoot him with a rubber bullet — apparently just because he can.

Here, a UC Davis policeman calmly pepper-sprays students who are sitting on the ground, immobile. Other police watch and do nothing.

BTW, you should see how this incident ends: Starting at about the 5 minute mark, the police see that the crowd is neither retreating nor attacking, and they start to lose their spirit and look confused. Using the human mic device, a protester invites them to retreat, and they do, leaving the quad in control of the protesters. It’s a stunning example of how nonviolence works.

At UC-Berkeley, students are peacefully behind a line of police who suddenly start using their nightsticks.

Here, a young woman with her hands at her sides, surrounded by people armed with nothing more than cameras, is pepper-sprayed in the face by police in riot gear. The LA Times reports the incident in he-said/she-said terms: “Occupy Portland organizers allege law enforcement took an inappropriate and heavy-handed approach.”

In Seattle, police pepper-sprayed this 84-year-old former school teacher. Local TV news even-handedly reported that “mayhem took place” and “chaos erupted in downtown Seattle”.

Retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis (who was arrested in New York Thursday) put it a little differently: “Corporate America is using our police departments as hired thugs.”

I have read many claims by police that protesters threatened or assaulted them in some way. With all the video cameras out there, you’d think someone would capture assaults on police if they were really happening with any frequency. I’ve looked for such video, but I can’t find it.

On YouTube, the query “occupy protesters assault police” led me to this local TV-news report from Toledo, which shows two protesters at a city council meeting “assaulting police” by flailing helplessly as they’re being dragged away. So far that’s the worst protester violence I’ve found video of.

In public-opinion terms, this “even-handed” coverage is anything but. Obviously, the reason there is an incident at all is because people are protesting, so if “violence erupts”, the reader’s natural inclination is to think that protesters caused it. Similarly, when ABC News reports that nine cities have already spent more than $10 million responding to the protests, the protesters seem to be to blame.

What actually costs money, though, is the cities’ extreme now-look-what-you-made-me-do over-reaction to the protests. The protesters are not demanding to be surrounded by armies of police in riot gear earning overtime. City mayors and police chiefs are making those choices, which are justified by what, exactly? Where is the bad example of a city that under-responded and suffered some awful consequence?

Virtually every “problem” offered as an excuse to break up the occupation protests is actually made worse when the police attack. Are the protesters “trashing” the public parks? Well, here’s what the Occupy Oakland site looked like the morning after the police violently “cleared” it.

Mayor Bloomberg has cited complaints about noise as a reason to drive protesters out of Zuccotti Park — with noise cannons. As the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof observed:

Sure, the mayor had legitimate concerns about sanitation and safety, but have you looked around New York City? Many locations aren’t so clean and safe, but there usually aren’t hundreds of officers in riot gear showing up in the middle of the night to address the problem.

When the unprovoked and counter-productive violence of the authoritarian reaction is masked by “even-handed” coverage, though, the natural reaction of the news-watching public is to grumble at the protesters who are causing trouble and wasting their tax money.

And as the mainstream media coverage suffers from false equivalence and fake even-handedness, the coverage from the right-wing media — Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, and (now that Murdoch owns it) the Wall Street Journal — drips with vitriol.

For weeks, Fox News has pushed two related lines of propaganda on a daily basis: invoking a Woodstock drug-taking dirty-hippy stereotype of the protesters, and de-humanizing them by focusing on their animal functions — urination, defecation, sex, etc. Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC has put out an anti-Elizabeth-Warren ad tying her to the occupations, where “protesters attack police, do drugs, and trash public parks.”

Unsurprisingly, when one side’s propaganda goes uncorrected, the other side’s public image suffers. A PPP poll shows Occupy Wall Street’s popularity declining.

This combined police-and-media attack exposes a long-term weakness in the Left: We lack solidarity. When media coverage goes against some group we sympathize with, we distance ourselves rather than stand up for them.

The Right has dug-in, billionaire-financed infrastructure, so it will defend its clan from media attacks (as it has done with Herman Cain) even if the target is clearly in the wrong (like BP). Compare the Left’s reaction to the Dean Scream: Objectively, the scream meant nothing, but suddenly it was embarrassing to be associated with Dean, so his support melted.

It’s important that those of us who sympathize with the goals of Occupy Wall Street not melt away. Ordinary Americans have started protesting against the way that the rich (especially the parasitic financial community, which on the whole adds little if anything to our economy) have captured all the economic growth. In response, the rich have leaned on City Hall to call out the police to rough them up (except in New York, where no leaning was necessary because a finance-industry billionaire already is City Hall), and the corporate media has covered these events in a way that distributes the blame unfairly on the protesters.

We can’t let that be the end of the story.

What Kind of King Do You Want to Be?

Whenever I teach something, I always start with the same question: Why should you care? Because I hate being an authoritarian and demanding that people learn things they don’t want to know.

Wednesday I started teaching current events to a bright, home-schooled 13-year-old. So that’s where I had to begin: Why should he care about the news? Why should anybody?

Lots of people don’t, and they get by just fine. Lots of people who do, do it so badly that they probably shouldn’t. The news is just one more reason to get depressed or angry or to feel superior to the uninformed masses. They get mad at President Obama instead of their boss, or worry more about some missing girl in Wyoming than about their own kids. Maybe the news is just an addiction, a bad habit like smoking. Why should a teen-ager start?

Here’s why: In a democracy, the People are sovereign — the People have replaced the King. That means that each of us, in our own small way, is King. All of our children are heirs to the throne. “So that’s why I’m here,” I said. “I’m training you to be King. What kind of King do you want to be? What information will you need if you’re going to be that kind of King? That’s what news is.”

You can’t explain it with economics: There’s no profit in news unless you’re a politician or a journalist or a stock trader. Homo economicus doesn’t bother with news. He doesn’t vote, either. The personal gain doesn’t justify the investment of time and effort.

And while the news can be fascinating or engaging, let’s face it: Hard news, the kind of stuff kings need to know, is never going to compete with gossip and sensation. What gets human brain chemistry stirring? Charlie Sheen’s latest rant? Britney Spears going out without underwear? Or the collateral damage of some Predator drone strike on the other side of the world? You tell me.

No, the right reason to care about news isn’t profit or even interest. It’s because we have responsibilities. When we screw up our job as King of the most powerful nation on Earth, people die.

Look at Iraq. After 9-11, We the People of the United States were scared and shaken and angry. Collectively, we wanted to kick somebody’s butt. We wanted to show the world that we were still top dog, that we couldn’t be poked in the eye like this without somebody paying for it.

Bin Laden had vanished into the wind. We chased the Taliban out of Kabul, and then they vanished into the wind too. Nobody had paid yet, or they hadn’t paid enough.

And there was Saddam Hussein. He’d been thumbing his nose at us for years. He was vaguely a Muslim and vaguely in the same part of the world. You can say Bush fooled us, but all he did was encourage us to believe what we wanted: that Saddam was behind 9-11.

So we fought an unnecessary war. You can blame it on Bush if you want. You can blame it on Congress and on Democrats who didn’t have the courage to take an unpopular stand. But kings can always blame a bad decision on their advisors.

Really it was us. We could have stopped it. The truth was there for anybody who wanted to see it, but we couldn’t be bothered. We wanted to hit somebody.

So people died for no good reason. Four thousand of our troops. Tens of thousands of insurgents. And ordinary Iraqi civilians — God knows how many. Maybe hundreds of thousands, who can say? Millions had to leave their homes and go to Jordan or Syria or some other part of Iraq. Picture it: Picking up and leaving your friends because you had to go to Canada or Mexico or Alaska to feel safe. Millions of people.

That’s what happens when we screw up.

Right now we’re screwing up our economy. Millions of Americans want to work but can’t find jobs. So they’re losing their homes, their kids aren’t going to college, and if they get sick they have no insurance.

That’s what happens when we screw up.

I know what you’re thinking: If being King is such a hard job and we’re that bad at it, we should just abdicate. Let somebody smarter do it.

That turns out to be even worse. All of human history proves it.

The power doesn’t go away just because you don’t want it. Somebody else gets it. Occasionally it’s somebody good and responsible, but that never lasts very long. Eventually power winds up in the hands of somebody who is good at seizing power.

People like that run the country for their own benefit. If you have something they want, they take it. If they want you to do something, you do it or you go to jail. If you try to take the power back from them, they kill you.

That’s why our ancestors decided to take on the responsibility of being King in the first place — because all the alternatives were worse. All over the world now, ordinary people are trying to take on kingship because they’ve seen what happens otherwise. Just this year, hundreds of thousands of people showed up in public squares in Cairo, Tunis, Damascus, and a bunch of other cities all over the Middle East.  “You don’t dare kill all of us,” they were saying to their rulers. “If you give the order, the soldiers won’t do it.”

Sometimes they were right. Sometimes they weren’t.

That took a lot of courage. And the reason they did it was that they wanted the chance — the chance! it might not even work! — to be a King like you and me.

So what kind of King do you want to be? The kind who can’t be bothered to keep track of the kingdom? The kind who lets unscrupulous advisors run things for their own benefit? The kind who is easily manipulated with lies? Who is impulsive and acts without thinking? Who is easily distracted by ginned-up controversies that don’t really matter?

I’m hoping not. I’m going to try to convince you to be a good King. And if you’re going to be a good King, there are things you need to know and understand.

That’s what news is.

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