Friday, December 1, 2017

The Failure of News Interviewers

The tax bill — still not approved but impending — is a travesty, as I've written before. No one even knows what's in it at this point, since it hasn't been published, but they may vote on it anyway. Maybe even tonight. What the heck, right?

Despite my clear opposition to all its various stinky bits, I am still interested to hear why anyone would support it. (And not those who, like Trump, pretend it will cut taxes on the middle class, which is an obvious lie.) Maybe there are reasons for at least parts of it, other than "It gives money to our donor base" and "It sets us up to be able to cut Medicare and Social Security."

To that end, I listened to an NPR interview with Iowa senator Chuck Grassley yesterday.

It was painful to hear. Grassley made statements, based on Republican talking points, and host Robert Siegel generally didn't challenge him, no matter how obviously wrong he was.

First Siegel asked about the $1.5 trillion deficit the bill will create (according to the Congressional Budget Office). Grassley said that was just "on paper" and that by growing the economy at a 3–3.5 percent rate (rather than the average 1.4 percent rate we've been at in recent years), we will fill that deficit.

Siegel did not challenge him on that, even though only 1 out of 42 top economists queried on that very question said the tax cut would help the economy at all, and every one of them predicted it will raise the deficit. Grassley is cherry-picking years in order to find that 3–3.5 percent, 50-year average. Rather than, say, a more realistic time period like the past 20 years, after globalization really took hold... when we averaged 2 percent growth. Or the last 10 years, which averaged 1 percent under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Instead of pointing any of this out, Siegel moved on to ask why Grassley thinks CEOs will use their big tax savings to bring jobs back to the U.S. or pay higher wages. We all know that's not going to happen, as the CEOs themselves admit. Grassley gets away with a complete non-answer on that one: hey, he says, either way the money will be in the U.S. so that's all we need! (Wrong.)

Then Siegel moves on to the estate tax, pointing out the tiny number of people who benefit from raising the ceiling to $11 million. To this question, Grassley gives a jaw-droppingly stupid and extremely offensive answer:

I suppose to show appreciation for people that have lived frugally early in their life, delayed spending so they could save. It seems to me there ought to be some incentive and reward for those who work and save and invest in America as opposed to those who just live from day to day. You could take the same $100,000 income for two people — one of them, they spend it, have it all spent at the end of the year and the others have saved a fourth of it and invested and create jobs and leave something for the future. The first person leaves nothing for the future.
Grassley is passing off the myth of the frugal "millionaire next door" as the person who will benefit from this change in the estate tax, when in reality it's people like the Trump children and other trust-fund babies who will benefit the most. Siegel does challenge his logic, but Grassley replies,
Listen, in no way is my statement meant to dispute the statistics you gave me. I'm giving you a philosophical reason for recognizing savings versus those who want to live high on the hog and not save anything or invest in the commodities.
Oh right, when you have no facts, you resort to "philosophy." People who spend their incomes because they must to get by are "living high on the hog." While very wealthy people who've extracted everything they can out of other people, the land, and the climate should be rewarded by giving their ill-gotten gains to their heirs tax-free. That's a philosophy, all right.

The last question is about the lack of bipartisanship and the bad process on the tax bill. Siegel contrasts this with the 1986 tax overhaul, which was approved by 97 senators after many public hearings. Grassley says that was because Bill Bradley led the Democrats to join with the Republicans, and there's no one like him now. Awww. But Grassley also mentions that the marginal tax rate was 70 percent then (vs. 28 percent now), which might account for why Democrats are acting differently now than then (not to mention the bill's many other horrible dictates). And he dares to claim they don't need hearings because the "public comment [comes] from the 70 hearings that we've had over the last six or seven years on taxes": which had nothing to do with the specifics of this bill at all.

I was yelling at the radio at this point, but all Robert Siegel had to say was, "Chuck Grassley — thanks for talking with us."

What is the point of having anyone on the radio or other news program if the only purpose is for them to put out their propaganda without any reminder of facts? If you listen to the BBC at all, you've heard interviewers grill government talking heads much more stringently than this.

Where can we get us more of that, beyond Vox and some of the other written media? Why can't television and radio interviewers ask the questions that should be asked, and follow up when they are evaded by talking points? As journalists, how do they sleep at night?


After I posted my thoughts above, I saw a tweet storm by Dave Roberts of Vox (who did not write either of the Vox articles linked above, by the way). Here are his thoughts on the tax bill:
A note on the politics of this tax bill, which is so absurd and horrendous it can scarcely be believed — like, really.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, GW Bush and the GOP put together an "economic stimulus" bill in response. It was (brace yourself) a huge tax giveaway to the rich. So grotesque a giveaway to the rich that even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged as much! Paul Krugman wrote: "It was so extreme that when political consultants tried to get reactions from voter focus groups, the voters refused to believe that they were describing the bill accurately."

"Voters refused to believe." Remember that. Now fast forward to 2012 and the Romney/Ryan tax plan, which would have (brace yourself) slashed social spending to pay for giant tax cuts for the rich. Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, ran focus groups on it. Here's what happened: "When Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed 'ending Medicare as we know it' while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans – the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing."

Again, when GOP economic policy is accurately explained to voters, they simply cannot believe it's true.

Lots of people have used this as a kind of punchline, but I think it's worth taking some time to think about it seriously. Most people have other priorities and are woefully ignorant about politics. Research has confirmed this again and again. *Boundless* ignorance. Average people absorb politics piecemeal, through osmosis. What they generally see is a haze of pettiness, squabbles, and conflict.

Viewed from this distance, most people conclude that "politics" is hopeless, all politicians are venal, and the whole game is corrupt. Unless you're willing to put in serious time and work to suss out the details, "a pox on both houses" is kind of the default destination.

So when voters are confronted by the idea that one party wants to take from the poor and sick and to fund tax cuts for the rich and the other party doesn't, it simply doesn't fit the hazy "both sides suck" model. It *sounds* like an unfair partisan attack. The truth about the GOP sounds like an attack on the GOP, so people dismiss it as such. It's a perverse form of immunity.

And here we come to the true, twisted genius of the decades-long right-wing strategy. They have fractured trust in mainstream institutions so there is no widely trusted person or institution who can tell the truth about the GOP in a way that will be broadly accepted. There are no more trusted referees or arbiters, so the media atmosphere is filled with "both sides" yelling, with no way to resolve.

In that atmosphere, everyone can just comfortably believe whoever is saying good things about "their side." Epistemological bubbles. Which brings us to this current tax bill, which is even more comically malign and grasping than past GOP budget plans. Any attempt to accurately describe it sounds like a f'ing comic book villain revealing their evil plot toward the end of the movie.

But it is surrounded, in the media atmosphere, by the *exact same* haze of both-sides charge-and-countercharge as ever. So your average citizen, just going on instinctual heuristics, isn't going to believe an accurate description. It sounds too ludicrous. An accurate (horrific) description sounds like what "one side" says, and we all know the truth is in the middle somewhere, right?

In this way, the GOP, whether through design or accident, has stumbled on a brilliant political strategy for advancing kleptocracy. They exploit public and media heuristics that make us highly averse to asymmetry. They exploit the folk wisdom of "both sides do it." They do their deeds right out in the open, trusting (accurately!) that a good chunk of the public won't believe it is what it is.
Journalists understand the model of "finding and exposing hidden information" — the pre-internet-age core of journalism — but they have not yet solved the dilemma of how to help the public focus on and understand *already public information* that is surrounded by a fog of misinformation, bullshit, and distraction.

This ludicrous tax bill is a real-time test case. Can the media convey that it really is as cruel and plutocratic as Democratic critics are saying it is? Can they convey that the GOP has become something more unhinged and venal than even its worst critics charge? I doubt it. I'm not sure there's *any* economic policy that could break through.

Remember: "respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing." And that's how they get away with it.
Emphasis added about the comic book villains, because I just love that line.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

The PBS NewsHour has the same problem. I find I cannot watch it much anymore: it has too much of a feeling that everything is somehow normal. It’s not! It’s not!