Category Archives: news

The Little White Lie

I assume we’ve all heard the story. It’s almost a cliche in children’s books and movies and shows. A child tells a simple, harmless white lie. It seems like an easy solution. The kid gets to avoid getting in trouble, and it doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t cause any harm. But then there is some later consequence of the lie that the child didn’t think of. And they are faced with either admitting to the lie, and facing both the consequences they were originally avoiding and the consequences of telling a lie, or telling a slightly less simple, less harmless lie. And the lies snowball, getting greater and greater and doing more and more harm until the child finally comes clean.

Right now we’re seeing the beginning of that. We started with the quite predictable vanity issue of Trump claiming that he didn’t actually lose the popular vote for president, and that his inauguration crowd wasn’t as small as expert assessments and photographs suggest. But you can’t say that the popular vote was off by millions because of mass voter fraud and not do anything about it. But since it’s a lie, you can’t do anything real. The only right solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is admitting the lie. So you have to act on the lie. And that action will be a bigger lie, one that not only fixes a problem that doesn’t exist, but one that creates new problems that you need to come up with more dangerous and harmful lies to cover.

At some point, Trump will no longer be doing what he wants. Each lie builds momentum, creates another thing that he will have to react to in the future. Trump is building up a lot of momentum. I don’t know where it’s pointed, and I’m not going to speculate on what that looks like or where it ends.

I am also going to point out that this happening at a time when Republicans all over the country are shamelessly trying to prevent people who will vote against them from voting at all. That and Trump’s willingness to tell big lies and act on them is a combination that threatens the foundation of our system of government.

One last point: this is likely the most obvious, least consequential lie we are going to see from this administration. This one doesn’t have powerful special interests or personal fortunes or political movements riding on it. It isn’t complicated or difficult to see that it’s a lie. We need people to recognize this lie for what it is so that when the stakes are higher and the truth is more obscured they will be prepared.

Obamacare stubbornly not ruining country

Ezra Klein has an article up talking about Obamacare’s surprising success. Not just about the fact that it hasn’t been a disaster yet, but that it’s actually been more successful than even the more optimistic forecasts called for.

A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that in seven major cities that have released data on 2015 premiums, the price of the benchmark Obamacare plan — the second-cheapest silver plan, which the federal government uses to calculate subsidies —  is falling.

There are, of course, some caveats. This is just initial data, and the decrease is incredibly small. And the CBO warns that it doesn’t expect it to continue. None the less, it is part of a trend of data that is better than anticipated.

Krugman weighs in too, and I think he has a really good point. A year ago there was general pessimism about the ACA. The idea that it would be successful was not widely held, and most conservatives would have been incredulous at the mere suggestion. Krugman points to John Cochrane and The Hill, and they were hardly the worst. Yet here we are, with data on the ACA stubbornly refusing to look bad. I wish more conservatives were asking why.

Maybe more importantly, I wish this would be a hit to the credibility of the people who were so frantically warning of disaster. They weren’t just wrong, they were spectacularly wrong. It really should make people wonder what else they’re wrong about.

Because it’s not like this is an isolated issue. Many of the same people who were wrong about this have been wrong about a host of other economic and political issues lately. From the last presidential election when conservatives were surprised by the utterly predictable results, to inflation which has miraculously stayed low, to the ACA which hasn’t ruined healthcare or America yet. Any of these things in a vacuum would be reasonable enough to ignore. But I hope that at some point this pattern of making predictions that turn out to be completely untrue will shake their listeners faith in them. Because at this point it’s clearly not just an isolated mistake, it’s something more fundamental, something about their entire approach that makes them unable to see when they are wrong.

Ferguson, Racism, and Economics

I’ve been following circumstances in Ferguson with a lot of interest, but I’ve been reluctant to comment much on it. Admittedly, this is largely because I’m not comfortable talking about racism. But that discomfort is, in large part, what allows systemic racism to thrive. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

I think it’s worth noting how strong that impulse to slow down is, even now. Maybe especially now. An example from the NYT:

Possibly the most widely held sentiment among whites is the hope that it all simply goes away. “I feel for everyone involved,” said Shannon Shaw, a jeweler in Mehlville. But, she added, “I think the protesters just need to go home.”

In America race and class issues are completely intertwined. Look closely enough and you can see one or the other, but it’s impossible to take a broader look at one without seeing the other. In a recent article in Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote:

Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

Why is that? As the civil rights movement progressed, overt racism became socially unacceptable. But people didn’t change as fast as society, so many people silently held on to racist beliefs, feelings, and attitudes. And of course that racism still came out in public, just more subtly. Racist statements would be vague enough that if challenged there was plausible deniability. Perhaps the least subtle example of this is economics, where the language of race was often simply replaced with class. Instead of talking about black people politicians would talk about the poor, or the inner city, or urban culture.

This had two effects. One is that it created a kind of code. People could once again express overtly racist ideas but still maintain plausible deniability. The other effect was both more subtle and more harmful. People who heard these statements but didn’t recognize their intent took them at face value, sometimes accepting the idea that the poor are, essentially, an inferior race. Even the people who were using class as code started to internalize the idea that race and class were interchangeable.

Lately, looking at the coverage of the events in Ferguson, I think the most striking difference between the protesters and their critics is the scope of the issue. The critics say that we can’t know what happened, that we must wait and find out if the shooting was justified. But this is to entirely misunderstand the protesters. Michael Brown’s death is a symbol to them, and regardless of what happened in the moments before his death they will still feel as powerless and abused as before. The problem isn’t any individual incident, it is the attitudes and the patterns.

If you are unconvinced, look at nearly any decision by the police and government since the shooting. More than a lack of respect, they have shown disdain for the community. From the repeated decision to use tear gas on peaceful protesters to the arrest of journalists to the imposition of curfew, at every turn the police have chosen to treat the community as an enemy.

Which brings me to my final point: escalation. I feel like that is the key theme that runs through all of the problems that have hit the news in Ferguson. Not just since the death of Michael Brown, but before it too. The authorities seem to welcome the chance to escalate situations, to the point that very few of the people in power seem to even see any other options. It creates a cycle of escalation.

Are we done separating news from editorial?

The news business has changed a lot in the last decade or two. First, there was the decline of newspapers and print journalism in favor of the internet. That came with the advent of the 24 hour news cycle. More recently, the creation of news sources that intentionally target particular audiences like Fox or MSNBC, and then the rising popularity of fact checking.

Today I saw the announcement for The Upshot, from the New York Times, and I wondered if this wasn’t a new direction. The goal, as described in the link:

We have two main reasons. One, we believe many people don’t understand the news as well as they would like. They want to grasp big, complicated stories — Obamacare, inequality, political campaigns, the real-estate and stock markets — so well that they can explain the whys and hows of those stories to their friends, relatives and colleagues.

I think with the fragmentation of the news, with it being reported by so many sources, each with challenges to its integrity and reliability, many people feel unsure of what to make of it. “Where should I get information from, can I trust it, what does it mean, what should I think of it?” Even if people aren’t consciously aware of these as questions they will run into challenges from others who disagree with everything from general philosophies to which sources are reliable to basic questions of fact.

I think The Upshot, as well as sites like Vox (which I have so far been impressed with), are trying to answer that question. The goal is to provide not only information, but context; to create a framework for the news to be understood in. Because news comes in smaller, more frequent pieces it doesn’t work as well to tell a story in a single article. Instead, these sites try to create a framework, so that each article is a piece of a larger story, and the more you read the better you understand the big picture.

I remember hearing a great deal of criticism of Fox News for blurring the lines between its news programs and opinion programs. I wonder if that won’t prove ironic as news sources intentionally blend journalism with editorial to give not only information, but understanding of the news. Because as much as I admire the journalistic standards of the past, they don’t seem to provide people with what they want. People don’t want the bare facts, they want context. They want a story that tells them what the facts mean, and how they fit into the world around them.