Saturday, October 28, 2006

U.S. Elections 2006: The Politics of Facts and Style

For context's sake, this column you're reading is in conversation with one written by Dave Nalle, "Will the Big Lie Win in 2006?" My comments there outgrew the comments box.

Dave is the politics editor at Blogcritics, which I remind readers gets over 50,000 hits per day. I don't know how many hits the politics section gets in comparison to other ones, but his posts often have hundreds of comments. Since a considerable number of people are reading his ideas, I think it's worth asking questions about them, in the spirit of providing publics with multiple views and arguments in the most civil way possible (to avoid the blustering rah-rah cheerleading of those who simply want to see their view of the good triumph at any cost, to themselves and the publics who hear and believe them).

Basically, I want to raise questions about what it means to say the U.S. economy is in good shape and to suggest Democrats and anyone else are distorting reality to claim otherwise ( cynically for political gain). My second set of questions come from responses Dave made in the subsequent conversation in the comments section.

So, first, the column to which I'm responding invokes the very diabolical tactic/concept of the Big Lie imagined by Hitler and Goebbels. Dave offers this eternally spine-chilling selection from Hitler: “The primitive simplicity of their minds render them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies, but would be ashamed to tell big ones... the victor will never be asked if he told the truth... success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong."

His critics and mine will surely evaluate us with Hitler’s statement in mind. People always cite Hitler for emotional support of their own views while the other sides' will be sent to the insane Nazi bin faster than you can repeat "Big Lie" ten times. Thus, out of respect for our audience, we can not simply vilify our opponents through metaphors and then keep repeating what we just believe. We have the responsibility to engage respectfully those with whom we disagree. Otherwise, there is no point in this except to feed our own narcissism or to hornswoggle the reader.

The first point about which I had questions is the oft-heard common wisdom that people vote with their pocket books ("it's the economy stupid"). Coupled with that claim is the bigger one that the economy is in fact doing very well under Bush Jr., and thus the Democrats and any other critics of Republicans and the Bush Administration are distorting the actual economic reality. That alleged distortion Dave refers to as "The Big Lie."

First, Americans do not always vote with their pocketbooks, do they (despite people saying so)? Check out this Pew study of the last election in which the report reads:
"Among those offered the seven-item list, a plurality of 27% selected moral values, followed by 22% who chose Iraq and 21% who selected the economy and jobs. Terrorism was chosen by 14%; education and health care were chosen by 4% each and taxes by 3% (see chart on pg. 2).

The responses were significantly different among those who were not offered a fixed list of choices. The war in Iraq was mentioned as the single most important issue by a similar number (25%), but the economy and jobs were mentioned by only 12%; and only 9% mentioned terrorism. Notably, just 9% used the terms "moral values," "morals," or "values." Specific social issues ­ including abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research ­ were volunteered by 3%, while another 2% cited the candidates' morals."

Along these lines, Dave says Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi have been trying to contradict Bush's portrayal of a strong economy and a prosperous America. About Pelosi, he says,

"Rather than many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, savings and investing rates are rising for the first sustained period since 1982, suggesting that more Americans than ever before have excess income. Gas prices certainly aren't skyrocketing. She made this statement during a week when gas prices had dropped to a 20-year low when adjusted for inflation. Her numbers are also fishy on median family income. HUD estimates that median family income has increased by $7100 during the tenure of the Bush administration. Her number for the increase in household costs is not far off, so perhaps she 'accidentally' transposed the 7 and the 1 in the income figure."

Similarly, Dean says, "Incomes have fallen because wages — which provide 75% of income for typical families — are stagnant for most workers... Health and retirement coverage have declined for most workers and their families."

Dave says, "Yet the truth is that incomes are up and so are wages - hourly wages alone are up by about 14% in the first four years of the Bush administration. What's more, while too many are certainly uninsured, the actual percentage of the population without insurance has remained stable for decades at about 15-16% when you count in Medicaid."

First, there is a difference between "income and wages" and averages thereof (the link contradicting Dean is about averages and is from the U.S. Government; the rub is "average" versus mode or median).

He goes on to claim Dean's own use of the numbers don't compute, before noting,

"It's all in how he presents the numbers and the assumptions he makes, because overall retirement plans are up, but the shift from pensions to 401(k)s means that pensions are down. The flaw in his argument is that 401(k)s perform much better over the long term for retirees than pensions do, so what he's not saying is that pensions are down because people have put their money into better retirement plans."

He concludes: "Pelosi and Dean are typical. They're just echoing talking points which every major Democrat talking head, pundit, and politician is repeating. It's all a bunch of half-truths, gibberish and straight-out deceptions, but if enough people say the same thing on TV and in the newspapers it will start to seem like it has some legitimacy, especially since most news hosts and newspaper editors won't challenge their statements or provide facts to counter their assertions."

I agree that these are talking points, as are the points we get from the Bush administration and nearly every person running for office. It's even true of people speaking in more open media like websites and blogs. But this is the style of our political culture; and I hate it. Soundbites are a way of life, encouraged by the price of print space and air time, fear of rational argumentation and embrace of techniques learned from war propaganda, advertising, and public relations.

So the question, I think, is not that talking points hide complexity but are there more developed arguments to support those soundbites? Further, are you saying, Dave, they're just not getting it (the facts), or are you saying they're deliberately distorting "the facts" for political gain? How do you think they would respond?

How do you put information and claims about the state of the American economy like the following into conversation with your own offered in your post? (My whole point in offering these citations is that different research groups produce different data and then present it with different emphases and appeals, which, yes, can be critically analyzed, but usually there is no conversation between those who have different data and interpretations of it).

Take for example, information on the Economic Policy Institute's Homepage, updated in the last two days, which just came up in a quick search I did on the state of the American economy.

"The federal minimum wage has not seen an increase since 1997 and its value has dropped by 20% since then. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it is at its lowest value in 50 years. Automatic annual adjustments to the wage, or indexing, has gained increasing support and is becoming more common among the U.S. states that have their own minimum wage laws.”

Perhaps you disagree with these claims? The same group claims there are an estimated 14.9 million Americans receiving minimum wages ( link here).

On the other hand, the Heritage Foundation claims there are 1.9 million. Actually there are key words in the presentation of both of these "facts" that point to differently named realities ("estimated" vs. "reported").

The same EPI page continues its "gloom and doom," as Reagan would say: "The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the economy added only 51,000 jobs in September, the fewest in nearly a year, with housing continuing to flatten and blue-collar manufacturing suffering its biggest loss of jobs since July 2003."

That doesn't sound like a thriving economy, but is it just misrepresenting the facts?

Two more samples from the same source:
"For the fifth year in a row, the number of Americans without health insurance grew significantly. Nearly 46.6 million Americans were uninsured in 2005--up almost 7 million since 2000. From 2000 to 2005, the uninsured share of the total population grew from 14.2% to 15.9%, while the share of those with employer-provided coverage dropped. Health Insurance Eroding for Working Families discusses the latest data and trends in health care coverage."

"There are at least two good reasons why the economy remains solidly in play as an election issue: first, the negative trends affecting working families, and second, the way the administration has tried to spin those trends.

Start with the second point. When asked recently about why the administration's good news on the economy was failing to reach the public, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson responded ‘That's the $64,000 question.’

Well, Paulson's $64,000 question has a $3,000 answer. That's how much the inflation-adjusted income of the typical working-age household is down since 2000." That's from a recent Jared Bernstein editorial.

The Bush Govt. website celebrates job growth under its tenure: “Fact Sheet: Job Creation Continues -More Than 6.6 Million Jobs Created Since August 2003

"Today, The Government Released New Jobs Figures 51,000 Jobs Created In September, And The Unemployment Rate Dropped To 4.6 Percent. This growth follows the addition of 188,000 jobs in August. The economy has created more than 1.7 million jobs over the past 12 months. Since August 2003, more than 6.6 million jobs have been created more jobs than all the other major industrialized countries combined. This is 810,000 more jobs than previously estimated. Our economy has now added jobs for 37 straight months. "

But what kind of jobs are they? Doesn't say.
A representative of the temp industry itself notes that 2.5 million people each day go to temp jobs. And an article in _Slate_ notes: "But temporary employment is highly volatile. It topped out in spring 2000 and then crashed dramatically. Between April 2000 and April 2003, the number of temporary jobs fell from 2.68 million to 2.13 million. Twenty percent of temp jobs disappeared, compared to only 2 percent of payroll jobs." Thus, when we hear about spikes in the payrolls, we should ask what kind of jobs are they, how long are such jobs usually kept, and how many jobs were lost in the same period?

We could go on and on. I only spend the time here because the talk about the economy is full of "big lies," and it's not always easy for non-experts to sort through it and make sense. It doesn't help matters when those presenting the information choose to do so with ad hominems and other self-congratulatory clever frames.

The Big Lie is about repeating the same BS until it is taken as truth (and insuring that the greatest possible number of people hear it). But that can be done with many things and in carefully orchestrated ways. Are you sure, Dave, that these are just whackos crowing about a bad economy that doesn't exist, just to manipulate voters? Seems more complicated to me, if one is going to engage the different positions and information being presented. Otherwise, do we who write commentaries end up being co-opted into the reduction of politics to team spirit?

Part II. A comment by Dave in the ensuing exchange.

"To continue my train of thought from[comment} #171… it occurs to me that those who are raised by a single parent, in a bad neighborhood and with other strikes against them, have enough problems to overcome without the government putting more obstacles in their way. Why not get out of the way and give them access to decent education and not come to them with handouts as an alternative to teaching them self-reliance."

Dave, this sounds like a complete non-sequitr to me. Am I misreading you? Are you saying that "government" in Washington, Austin, the county, or city is a/the major obstacle to overcoming "problems" in such neighborhoods? This sounds pre-19th century to me. Of course A GOVERNMENT can get in the way of all sorts of activity/freedom (as it should; that's why people have governments). And some attempts to help have caused more problems, though to assume that any attempt by government to intervene in the market or private life is doomed to make things worse is a very dangerous fallacy, as A.O. Hirschman has shown. There seems to be a disagreement between you and some of your readers about the perennial sociological and philosophical question of structure and agency. Under what influences do humans act and why? Some would re-phrase it as under what conditions do/can humans exercise freedom?

It's well-acknowledged by sociologists, philosophers, and political scientists world-wide that multiple social and political institutions and daily relationships "govern" us. WE all grow up being governed/shaped by forces elected--most not-- by others, as we recall that children do not elect, nor are most forms of social organization, including economy specifically on the ballot. The big question is WHAT KIND OF INSTITUTIONS AND GOVERNMENT DO WE WANT TO INFLUENCE WHAT KIND OF LIFE AND FREEDOM? We do not get out of the bind by retreating to a simple theory that humans are self-made, sprouting up self-reliantly and making themselves however they please, though some perform heroically and have happier endings than do others. At what point, after being socialized according to whose values and ideas of the good life, are humans mature and able to govern themselves responsibly without threatening the well-being of others? Freedom and responsibility is never the absence of government.

The very idea of government (unless you're a Nietzschean, in which case there’s no point arguing: politics and everything else is the will to ruthless power) in most traditions of Democratic thought is to protect citizens as a whole from those few who would use force to do what they please to others. That includes protecting them against those who would seize the government to do their bidding. Who was it--Madison?--who said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary?"

The following notes about history, freedom, and government are not aimed for lecture's sake but to demonstrate my reasoning about the topic.

In Colonial America, the fear of tyranny was directed against a king. In this historical context (often de-contextualized today) we get Thomas Paine’s “that government is best which governs least.” Part of the attraction of a continent of seemingly free property to European eyes was that it corresponded with a dominant idea that freedom (including political freedom) was generally bound up with being economically independent, not depending on a master or boss for your livelihood (the very Greek root of economy is "oikos" or household; those who worked for others were not free politically or otherwise, but their bosses/owners’ were). Jefferson's yeoman farmer was one version of this, as was the Southern slaveholder, and then Hamilton's commercial entrepreneur, trader, shopkeeper.

That world changed with industrialization, though many held fast to the same old talk and figures of freedom and worries about a government imagined as being embodied ONLY in elected forms. Popular knowledge of "government" has not kept pace with that of the social sciences, though the use of elected government to protect people's political and civil freedoms (not reduced to market activity) against giant corporations, secret societies, educational institutions and their interlocking alliances with elected government were in all the political platforms at the turn of the last century from Populists, Progressives, some (T. Roosevelt) Republicans, Socialists, and Democrats. That's what trust-busting and reaction to machine politics was all about. People's everyday lives were being organized around an economic life out of control of electoral processes (though the fiction was that other aspects of life were self-made and that economic life alone was infringing upon them). There was talk of "invisible governments." And the crash of 1929 and the response of the New Deal were publicly identified with those forms of "government."

The Reagan administration declared war on "Big Government," somewhat ironically some of your readers would point out, given their military spending and attacks on civil liberties (support for legally protecting school prayer, banning flag burning and abortions—legislating individual freedom was not something they or the current administration shied away from). They have succeeded for some years now to persuade many citizens that there is only one form of bad government. That's one that spends money on social initiatives to try to provide equality of opportunity (which they seem to imply already exists from birth in any society that is Duke- and Duchess-less). Military spending is clearly for the protection of freedom for all, they suggest, and that’s the extent of government responsibility to protect citizens, they suggest. Clinton, with small attempts to change American healthcare as a citizen's right and the military to accept gays, did not challenge this view about "Big Government" and its role in protecting citizens from multiple largely invisible governments that want nothing more than for people to believe nothing else governs them besides Washington.

As I say, many of our time-honored phrases and principles are taken out of historical context and become ways for exploiting people today (e.g. Thomas Paine's, cited above). It’s true that one should be attentive to historical changes and with dotcoms and a new information economy, not to mention the global economy, many true stories of entrepreneurial success exist. But let’s not exaggerate the precariousness of new small businesses, wage-earners, or downsizeable corporate and government employees today.

“More than 10.5 million Americans are self-employed. (U.S. Small Business Administration ).” Further, “[a]ccording to the U.S. Small Business Administration, over 50% of small businesses fail in the first year, and 95% fail within the first five years.” We have never had a purely “free” market, if by that you mean without any interference by government (and/or if one means that everyone has equal opportunity to participate and compete in it). As just one example, corporations gained the legal status of persons not by decree of God, but through lobbying and political battle. Resources are not equal to everyone. In order for one person to exercise his unconstrained freedom in life without reducing his neighbor’s, certain conditions must be protected and institutions may help or deter him/her from seeing what all those possibilities for self-development might be (to sound more new-agey than I’d prefer). That’s not Marxism (to any who would jump to distract through name-calling) but basic sociology.

Perhaps wrongly, I get the sense that unconstrained economic life (producing, marketing, buying, selling, consuming) assumes a central role in your assumptions about freedom, self-reliance and government. But study of human life demonstrates that economies are never un-constrained and that many other aspects of life influence our decisions and actions.

Policies and proposals from school vouchers and private healthcare to campaign finance-as-free-speech all abstract problems from concrete practical situations. Those situations feature differing versions of freedom clashing where one version curtails the freedom of some to equal opportunity in the name of freedom for others. Self-reliance is hardly a solution to these huge conflicting visions so glibly reduced to warring political brands. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, both the sheep and the wolf want freedom, but one's freedom means the other's death.


Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. I recommend this posting from Ollie North:

by Oliver North
Vietnam and Iraq: Myth vs. Reality

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Much is being said and written these days about how the war in Iraq resembles the war in Vietnam. The theme began during the 2004 presidential campaign with Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry describing Iraq as a "quagmire" and demanding a "date certain" for a U.S. pullout. Purveyors of the "news" in our so-called mainstream media picked up the beat -- though many of them are too young to know anything more about Vietnam than what they learned from a movie. The "Vietnam deja vu" howl is now in full cry. But it's a myth.Having now spent nearly as much time in Iraq as I did on my first "tour" of Vietnam in 1968-69, it's readily apparent that the parallels between the two wars are practically non-existent on the battlefield. In the press and politics -- it's a different matter. The barons of bombast have decided that Iraq equals Vietnam. Those who make this argument...

Steve said...

Nice post, Jayson. I think the "Republican" statistics you cite are pretty ridiculous - they make sense if you figure in the Bush tax cut and the billions of dollars it has saved for the top 1% of Amerikka's wealthy. I've found my investments languishing, despite the recent run in the market, my real estate investment (home) languishing (if not dropping as in the rest of the country) and my pay stagnant for the past 3 years as my government job has frozen pay with zero percent pay increases. Add in the increasing deductibles, and the now current move to push us into "health savings plan" style of care, not to mention the higher fuel prices, etc and so on, and YES, MY HOUSEHOLD INCOME IS SHRINKING. Now, if I happened to be an owner of an oil well, who was getting kickbacks from his buddies in the whitehouse, or if I was someone who was supplying the atrocity in Iraq, or if I was some other member of the top 1% (as are some of my friends) I would probably find my income booming.

REALITY: Republican party is still the party of capital. The Democratic party, while faltering, is still the only party that talks about things that benefit PEOPLE.