For People Who Think

September 10, 2010

“Interesting Times equal Nasty Politics” by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 4:47 pm

We’re in for an interesting two months and then an interesting two years.

If current trends hold, the Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives in November, and they might manage to lose the U.S. Senate, too, although that’s less likely. And this would happen after they swept into power in 2008 with huge majorities.

How does a thing like this happen? How does a political party lose so much support so quickly?
Jobs. Nobody really believes that the Obama administration has done enough to help the 15 million people who are out of work in this country. Yes, things are better now than when Barack Obama took office. Every month, instead of losing 700,000 jobs, which was what happened during Obama’s first month in office, we’re gaining between 50,000 and 100,000. The problem is that we need to grow about 125,000 jobs a month just to keep up with population growth. What’s happening now isn’t as bad as things were in January, 2009, but it isn’t enough; it just isn’t. We still have 15 million people out of work and there’s no end in sight.

So, what can be done about it? There are several courses of action, available. The questions are which ones Obama will pursue and how likely is he to get any or all of them through Congress. For example:

1) The White House is floating a permanent extension of an expired tax credit that businesses can receive when they spend money on research and development in the United States. Both parties like this. It has been approved before by Congress and could be again before the midterm elections. The potential problem is that the Republicans, scenting blood in the water before November’s elections, might decide to filibuster every Democratic effort to pass economic legislation in the Senate. The real problem is that the R&D credit is only a modest effort. It would cost the government about $70 billion in tax revenue over the next decade, and wouldn’t help generate enough jobs to make a major dent in unemployment.

2) The country’s roads and bridges are falling down. In New York the state lists about 110 bridges that are distinctly shaky, but the White House is not considering another big stimulus bill after the $817 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Obama pushed through right after he took office. That’s because neither party in Congress wants to finance a second stimulus – not with all the concern over the growing federal deficit. That’s projected to hit projected to hit $1.47 trillion this year. (That’s with a “T.”) And the impact of any economic stimulus plan is directly proportional to how many dollars are spent in such an effort.

You can argue that, given the grim nature of the unemployment situation and the fact that the government can borrow now at rock-bottom rates, concern for reducing unemployment should trump concern over the national debt, but too many people now believe that the first stimulus was a bust even though statistics from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office say it protected or added more than 3 million jobs in the second quarter of this year. In a democracy, though, what counts is what people believe, not necessarily what the facts might be.

3) You can expect Obama to take a page from the book of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and try to give private businesses tax breaks as hiring incentives. One plan would be to extend the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, which would give businesses a payroll tax exemption for hiring workers who have been out of a job for more than 60 days. This could help by encouraging businesses that have been sitting on cash — worried about how badly the economy is going to slow down this year — to start hiring. It’s also designed to cut into the problem of the long-term unemployed. But you can expect a big fight over doing that or offering a temporary, across-the-board “holiday” from the payroll taxes that both employees and employers pay to help cover Social Security and Medicare costs. The real problem with either idea is the price tag – maybe as high as several hundred billion dollars per year. Another major problem is that a payroll tax holiday would do nothing to spur consumer demand, which is distinctly pallid. Businesses won’t hire, tax credit or no, if they continue to believe that there’ll be no market for their goods and services.

4) Figure also that Obama will lift another Merkel plan – tax rebates. The idea would be to simply send money back to the struggling middle class, through a fresh round of modest tax rebate checks. Not a bad plan. It would get people back into the stores buying stuff, which, in turn, would encourage companies that make that stuff to hire more workers to make more stuff. The American economy is 70 per cent consumer spending. The potential problem is that vast numbers of people are scared. They’re deeply in debt and are slowly paying it off. Give them more money, and they’re likely to use it to pay off more debt. Paying off debt does not stimulate consumption.

5) One of the real issues for Obama and for Congress will be what to do with the Bush tax cuts set to expire on Dec. 31. Both parties seem now to agree on extending tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 and households earning less than $250,000. You want to keep those tax cuts in place for middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers because much of that the money goes into the economy through consumer spending. But Obama wants to let the top bracket cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire to help reduce the deficit. Those people, he argues, are already spending what they want and will continue to do so without extending their tax cuts.

So, for the next two months and then for the next two years, expect big fights in Washington over all these matters and more. And, regardless of what happens this November, expect a nasty, nasty 2012 presidential election unless more people manage to find jobs in this dismal economy.

September 1, 2010

The New Credibility Gap by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 7:17 pm

My first city editor was an elegant, white-haired guy named Nicholas O’D. Lederer. He dropped dead at a company dinner, breaking the hearts of everybody who’d known him.

From Nick, and early on, I learned about the difficulties in presenting people with the best available version of the truth. That is, after all, journalism’s prime objective.

The difficulty is that too few people really want the truth. Nick, who was in his late 50s when I worked for him, had figured that out a long time before I’d ever entered his newsroom. He was constantly instructing young reporters with little homilies about the limits of human comprehension. I still recall many of those.

“People will believe anything if you whisper it,” Nick once said to me. “Never underestimate the power of stupidity in human affairs.”

He also taught me that everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for that rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge. That’s invariably screwed up in some particular, large or small.

“Any newspaper story about an error,” Nick once intoned, “is absolutely certain to contain at least one error.”

I bring up the long-dead Nick Lederer because the Pew Research Center poll recently revealed that 18 percent of respondents believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Two Americans in five and are unsure exactly what religion he practices. When you break it down by political party or liberal/conservative leaning, it gets even worse. More than one in three Republicans thinks that Obama is a Muslim.

The Democrats have their own nutty beliefs, too. A variety of polls have shown that as many as 42% of Democrats believe that President George W. Bush either ordered the 9/11 attack or, with prior knowledge that it was coming, allowed it to happen so he would have an excuse to invade Iraq.

Bottom line: the hardliners on both the right and the left and in both parties desperately need a shot of truth serum. The problem is that there’s really no place for them to get it.

Are Americans dumber now than we were a few decades ago? We shouldn’t be. With more of us attending college, we’re supposed to be smarter. But higher education rates and easier access to information have been undermined by the decline of the establishment press and by a pervasive, pernicious mindset in which rumors – especially those spread on the Internet – are routinely accepted as truth by nearly half the country’s population.

The late U. S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to like to argue that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts. If that was once true, it’s generally no longer so. In the minds of far too many people, opinion has become fact, and anybody who insists on verifiable truth has to be on the other side of the political divide – or one of those reviled elitists who thinks that everybody else is a moron. Too many of us now see truth, or even the effort to present truth, as just another dastardly scheme to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Facts that challenge belief systems are ignored. Conservatives see the facts as liberal. Progressives, as liberals now call themselves, see facts as conservative.

So, we now live in a democracy where rational debate is fading away, whether the topic is global warming, foreign policy, the economy or evolution or taxes. (That was another of Nick’s homilies, by the way – that taxes are rarely levied for the benefit of the taxed.)

The Internet is a marvelous development on the road of human progress. Whatever else it does, the Internet constantly offers almost limitless information. The quantity is staggering. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing problem with the way many people process that information. They’re overwhelmed by the volume of information, and they lose the ability to discriminate to the point where any alleged fact is just as good as any other, regardless of the source.

So, when you learn that the vast numbers of Americans doesn’t know what religion our president practices or believe that George W. Bush ordered the 9/11 attacks, what are you supposed to conclude? My conclusion is that, ironically, the development of the Internet may be ushering in a new Dark Age in which belief and conviction outweigh rational analysis and in which truth is what you choose to believe rather than what can be proven and authenticated.

Moreover, this is more than a problem for just Americans. A poll taken by World Public Opinion, a collaborative project of research centers in various countries managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, polled 16,063 people in 17 foreign nations outside the United States during the summer of 2008. They found that majorities in only nine of the 17 countries believe that Al Qaeda carried out the attacks.

A total of 46 percent of those surveyed said Al Qaeda was responsible, 15 percent said the U.S. government was responsible. Seven percent said Israel had done it, and seven percent said that 9/11 had been the works of some other perpetrator. One in four people didn’t know who’d been behind the attacks. In other words, three in four of these people were dead certain in their beliefs, and fewer than half accepted or understood the truth.

Part of what created this problem has been the slow, steady decline in the volume and quality of real news coverage and the growing cynicism of so many people toward establishment news sources. Before the Internet, you already had too many people discounting news reports that presented facts that challenged their beliefs. When the Internet came along, they no longer had to confront those facts. Instead, they could find information that confirmed their beliefs and found, to their delight, that they could ignore any information that failed to conform to their biases and prejudices.

If you’re not worried about this, you ought to be. Any democracy in which various factions are unable to agree on basic facts is a democracy in trouble. Sooner or later, one side or the other is likely to pick up guns in an effort to win an argument in which the facts no longer matter. You can ask Abraham Lincoln about that.

Years ago, Nick Lederer told me that democracy’s best friend was a reliable establishment press and that the greatest danger to a democracy was the people’s rejection of the best available version of truth.

“A credibility gap almost always leads to a gullibility fill,” he said.

In a world in which people are willing to believe absolutely anything, absolutely anything is likely to happen.

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