What You Should Think About Balance

October 18, 2008

“The new integrity of the world, in our view, can only be built upon the principles of freedom of choice and balance of interests.”

–Mikhail Gorbachev

It is fair to characterize the Fox News Channel as a partisan house organ and a degenerate propaganda mill.  However, as a full-fledged cable network, it is too complex a phenomenon to be understood from a perspective that lacks all nuance and subtlety.  For example, the “fair and balanced” slogan plays into a method frequently utilized to create the perception of legitimacy.  From segments passed off as hard news to the most unapologetic of opinion programming, simply presenting some sort of clash between pundits of differing views causes many viewers to believe they have seen a balanced presentation.

In some cases, this perception is completely unjustified.  Across the continuum from subtle to blatant, there are many ways to manipulate a debate through framing the issue, limiting responses, manipulating tone, etc.  Yet there are also instances when debate both lively and legitimate occurs on that channel.  Perhaps the most impressive effort to legitimize the entire venture is a program titled Fox News Watch.  More often than not, this program approaches media analysis from a perspective that is thoughtful or even scholarly.

It was in viewing an episode of that show that I first encountered the phrase “distortion of balance.”  It is a term Neil Gabler of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting coined in order to describe the trickery involved in legitimizing a bogus position by presenting it as the equivalent of a legitimate position.  The perception of evenhandedness obscures crucial underlying reality.

Imagine if a televised debate were conducted between one advocate for the position that the Moon is is chiefly composed of minerals while another advocate contended the Moon is an enormous mass of cheese.  The second position is unsupported by anything resembling conclusive evidence, but a sufficiently earnest pundit could well cloud the issues and leave ignorant viewers uncertain about the truth (or convinced of a falsehood.)  From Iraqi weapons programs to global climate change — areas where technical ignorance is entirely understandable among those who are not trained experts — many media outlets legitimize an entirely bogus viewpoint in the name of presenting “balanced” content.

This is not always the result of the desire to push a particular agenda.  For example, fact checking after major political debates has become a widespread practice in the media.  Yet few outlets ever dare to critique a larger number of questionable statements from one candidate than the other.  In pursuit of “balance” that comes from presented equal quantity, readers are given the false impression that an equal number of misleading statements were made by each speaker.  Unless the underlying reality actually involves equality on that plane, the end result is coverage that leaves the audience misinformed.

All this involves issues where opinions fit neatly into two mutually exclusive categories.  Especially when it comes to political issues, covering “both sides of the story” tends to be an especially clumsy oversimplification.  Popular rhetoric often falls back on extremism if for no other reason than that moderation tends to be less inspiring.  Nowhere is this more evident than resistance to economic reforms.  While filled with self-delusions of being reasonable, passionate extremists decry every little push toward moderation as a surefire way to transform the U.S.A. into a new incarnation of the U.S.S.R.

Even if one grants the dubious premise that economic planning is an anethema to civil liberties, those extremists deliberately steer discussion away from positions between capitalist and communist extremes.  Few of them could begin to articulate the technical distinctions between communism and socialism.  With that deficit of knowledge, they are able to remain earnest while spouting falsehoods that characterize socialism as an extreme position.  Being loudly mistaken is not as sinister as being loudly dishonest, but civic duty demands any loudness be preceded by a greater degree of thoughtfulness than can be seen among such extremists.

All of this feeds into the disastrous reality that America’s economic titans enjoy ample reward with no real risk.  The same system forces working families to face real risk without appropriate reward.  The structure of the ongoing bailout makes this abundantly clear, though similar public largess has been a fixture of American political history from our nation’s inception.  One of the few sound observations to emerge from popular punditry related to the economic crisis is that we live in a society that practices a very generous variety of socialism for the rich while leaving everyone else to struggle in a particularly harsh capitalist environment.

Because the wealth of this nation is made to flow uphill through systematic corruption on a scale that would make the most nefarious Politburo power broker blush, honest American citizens playing by the rules must compete for pieces of an economic pie that is already largely devoured before the competition begins.  As horrible as that sounds, its modern manifestation could be anticipated from the theories that prop up the status quo.  Trickle down economics is very much a call for the overwhelming majority of this nation’s workforce to content themselves with the scraps that fall from the tables of tycoons.  Never mind that same workforce gathered the ingredients, composed the menus, set the tables, and prepared the feasts.

Perhaps Versailles toward the end of the French monarchy is a soundcomparison.  Under Louis XVI, at times it seemed that no luxury was too excessive.  Nobles competed with one another in increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth.  Today’s gold-infused cheeseburgers and Hummer limousines showcase impractical concentrations of resources with all the enthusiasm of decadent aristocracies past.  It is true that our government does not bestow hereditary titles conveying special privileges, but the absence of those does little to distinguish our economic realities from the sort of aristocratic exploitation that sparked the American revolution.

Modern militant rabble-rousers are do not condemn the growing concentration of wealth.  Though the original American patriots stirred up trouble to undermine a power structure that took from the many too enrich the few, the undercurrent of anger in today’s political dialogue actually perpetuates blatant plutocracy.  Government conceived “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” has become government of the people, by the rich, for the rich.  Apart from predictable vehement slander against reformers, proposed reforms are denounced by deliberately muddling humanitarian social spending with authoritarian tyranny.

There is no reason the United States of America cannot find a true balance.  Of invisible pink unicorns, an economic middle ground, and Saddam Hussein’s 21st century nuclear weapons program, there is one entity that is no myth.  Giving working families a fair deal, pursuing poverty harm reduction, promoting education, and stimulating scientific innovation are all pursuits that have been proven sustainable by many governments, including our own.  U.S. policy has always been a compromise between civic minimalism and policies promoted by those with other aspirations for our nation.

Perhaps a better tomorrow could also come from a new order that ceased funneling astronomical sums of public money into private hands.  Yet no politician has come forth with a credible proposal for a reform that would actually eliminate corruption in big business subsidy.  For that matter, thirty years of Republican promises to reduce government spending have only produced a record of huge spending increases, none greater than those undertaken with the full support of the sitting President.  Yet it is not too late for our nation to address decades of social neglect with bold action to move toward a healthy economic balance.

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What You Should Think About Fairness

July 28, 2008

“Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.”

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Do men like Bill Gates make this country great?  Does this country make men like Bill Gates great?  Is Bill Gates a great man?  Hopefully even the Microsoft founder himself has matured to the point of understanding these are not at all simple questions.  Yet for many Americans, the analysis is painfully simple, “Bill Gates received a tremendous amount of personal income.  He has not been convicted of a major crime or implicated in a breach of traditional values.  Therefore, Bill Gates is a great man.”

The self-made tycoon is a popular American archetype.  It is so deeply woven into our culture that The Pursuit of Happiness was never questioned as the title for a biographical tale about the pursuit of riches.  It is so deeply woven into our public policy that few debates are not clouded by the assumption that investors are the alpha and omega of American economic activity.  The consequences for entrepreneurs and shareholders are weighed carefully in all matters, while the consequences for working families with no substantial investments are often dismissed as a distraction from the vital business of lowering taxes, promoting trade, subsidizing industry, etc.

It is fair to argue that the United States has experienced generally good economic progress in the last thirty years.  It is also fair to argue that a position of such eminence could have and should have been parleyed into much greater national gains.  However, the immensity of the global economy prevents any of these opinions from rising above the level of pontification.  I suppose the most honest assertion that approaches the level of fact would be to look at our history of growth and conclude, “it could have been worse, and it could have been better.”

Yet it does not seem at all fair to argue that entrepreneurs and investors were exclusively responsible for these gains.  Even with contemporary Wall Street flimflam — the argument that widespread participation in mutual funds imparts universal status on the special interests of investors — it remains the case that many hard-working Americans carry debts far larger than the value of any investment portfolio they may have accumulated.  Of those prepared for a comfortable retirement, many still find the best decades of their lives shaped much more by levels of earned income than by investment outcomes.

Thus it is that, for more than thirty years, four out of five Americans have been effectively shut out from participation in economic growth.  The theory of trickle down economics is soundly repudiated by the profound failure of any real wealth to actually trickle down.  Some might argue that this is because corrupt public officials have not really put these ideals to a true test.  How is that any different from the argument that human beings are “too greedy” to sustain an economic commune the size of a large nation?*  I dispute the idea that trickle down economics was a good thing in principle.  Yet even those who romanticize it must face the cold hard fact that it does not produce the intended results in practice.

Of course, this assumes the intended results did not involve confining economic growth so narrowly as to promote the emergence of a new American aristocracy.  Hereditary titles, uselessly large personal fortunes, social climbers jockeying for appointments — only a feudal tradition is lacking.  Perhaps that is actually a bad thing, considering the role noblesse oblige played in feudal life.  Our economic elites can purchase a different standard of justice, exert extraordinary political influence, and still have time to accumulate vast amounts of real estate for personal use while the nation’s homeless rate continues along an alarming increase.

If only 20% of our citizenry were actually involved in pushing the economy forward, the fact that the other 80% are prevented from enjoying the progress might be fair.  Yet that conclusion can only be reached by starting with the absurd assumption that labor, training, management, research, art, and so much more are irrelevant.  It credits executive leaders, financiers, and the idle rich with exclusive participation in the economic achievements of the past three decades.  Personal incomes in those areas have ballooned to a downright insane extent.

Rational evaluation forbids any conclusion about a failure of industry on the part of the American worker.  Employees are laboring more hours and making larger sacrifices for the very same economic rewards analogous jobs would provide a generation earlier.  The reality of the working American has changed for the worse.  Degradation of opportunity is ongoing.  The labor force continues to become more and more productive, yet it is the corporate elite and old money that continue to receive more and more rewards.

An optimist might view this through the lens of Twain.  Wall Street institutions play the part of Tom Sawyer, reaping the rewards of hard work that others are induced to perform for a pittance.  A darker perspective might be seen through Orwell’s eyes.  There the metaphor of the working class as Boxer remains apt.  Had the President’s plan to significantly privatize Social Security been implemented promptly after it was proposed, would the surge of geriatric poverty suggest the approach of the knacker’s wagon?  Perhaps being frozen out of an entire generation of economic progress is not that dramatic, but surely it is no joke either.

Most ironic in all of this is presence of low points where pinnacles were thought to be built up by trickle down policies.  With decades of growth concentrated in the hands of an economic elite, amazing achievements ought to have emerged from those beneficiaries.  Instead of solutions to energy problems clearly understood in the 1970s, we find parasitism Enron-style.  Philanthropy to promote science, education, and general welfare was expected to blossom from the fortunes supply-side tax cuts would create.  Statistically, this mechanism has also failed to ameliorate the ongoing concentration of American wealth.

Of couse, symbolically it has done much more.  Rare confluences of vision and kindess create a false impression regarding the extent to which this nation’s most fortunate citizens actually give back to the society that facilitated their success.  Just as the self-made tycoon archetype promotes the blatant misconception that America enjoys greater socioeconomic mobility than the societies of Western Europe (some of which actually have feudal traditions,) the high profile philanthropy of Microsoft’s tycoons whitewashes over both the destructive business practices that forged said enterprise and the relatively rare nature of non-token generosity amongst living American tycoons.

Perhaps Bill Gates is a great man.  Perhaps the chef who prepared his dinner the last time he ate out is a great man.  Perhaps the dishwasher who cleaned his plate after the meal is a great man.  Perhaps all three are great.  Whether your definition of greatness involves hard work or loyalty or ambition or talent, who would presume to judge the character, or foretell the destiny, of the dishwasher?  Yet one thing is for sure — decades economic dialogue dominated by supply-side thinking recognize only the worthiness of men like Bill Gates.  Those who work hard without either being born into great wealth or thriving in a cutthroat business environment have labored for thousands upon thousands of days without earning any real gains.

The premise that proposed reforms like universal health care or expanded educational grant programs are somehow unfair to people already able to pay their own way is absurd.  This absurdity comes from the childlike assumption that present conditions were the product of a fair process.  We can continue to practice politics like children, crossing our fingers and hoping that, starting now, there will be no more significant corruption in political life.  Alternatively, we can face the reality we inhabit like adults.  We can recognize what has been unfair in the past.  We can take action to shape a future that brings us closer to fairness.

Of course, progressive economic reforms are not just about promoting the fairness of social justice.  Millions upon millions of Americans would enjoy a real improvement to the quality of their lives as a result of policies that duly consider the merits of demand-side interests.  Everyone would be able to wake up in a society with improved public health and improved public morale.  Even investments would be uplifted as a heavily strained labor force is given greater opportunity for financial security and professional development.  The fundamental fairness of correcting for decades in which four out of five Americans were excluded from any real reward for their part in achieving real growth — consider that icing on the proverbial cake.

*For clarity’s sake, I continue to believe the “communism has never been given a fair shake” argument is legitimate.  The crucial difference between the chance trickle down actually had and any historical regimes employing the term “communism” is the matter of open vs. closed societies.  With free speech, a free press, and a political system that has at times been the envy of the world, our nation still was unable to make supply-side economics work for anyone without personal control over an abundant supply of capital.  When a similarly open society attempts true communism, then it can be said to have been put to a test comparable to the one trickle down economics has clearly failed.