Language gaps

I have been reflecting on two traditional habits of our media that have become not only dysfunctional but actively destructive.  First, reporting on Trump as though he is a basically serious person.  The press is, slowly, getting better about nailing Trump for lying, and using the word. Old habits die hard, and the habit of treating the discourse of a US president as being considerable, and assuming conventional links among utterance, belief, and intention is one of those. But it’s not working, because those links are broken in Trump’s case.

When someone says something, in any serious context, we take the utterance as some sort of forecast of behavior.  “Drive me around in my car and I’ll pay you $X” is a commitment, maybe enforceable in court; “I love you” uttered by anyone not a complete cad isn’t as firm an assurance of future behavior, but normal people take it as at least not meaning “I don’t care about you” or “Actually I love someone else”, and normal people say it, or don’t, knowing that.  People can change their minds, but the general rule applies,  especially for public figures and leaders: what you say is and is seen to be predictive of your future behavior. A colleague of mine said what it means to a Jew to be Bar Mitzvah is that you are now responsible to what you say.

Accordingly, presidential discourse has always been reportable as spoken: data that is predictive (not perfectly) of consequential actions. However flacks and commentators spin it, we have taken presidents’ words as considerable.   It’s time to stop what has become a mechanistic charade: we have a president whose speech, whether about values, beliefs, or promised action,  only predicts his behavior accidentally. He reneges on flat commitments like promises to give to veterans’ causes, to invest in infrastructure, and ‘deals’ like the one last fall about immigration.  He is relentlessly, doggedly ignorant about absolutely everything, so his statements of fact are not even hopes and wishes, but short-run chum for his most hateful base, whatever he thinks a rally audience wants to hear. When Trump’s rallies, tweets, and press events are broadcast the way a normal president’s events used to be, and when his environmental policies are presented as though the fact assertions they rest on are on this side of the line between knowledge and witchcraft, they are flatly misrepresented. “Trump said X today” is simply not the same kind of report as it would be regarding the utterance of a responsible adult; tradition is a poor guide now. “Trump said X” means “the last person (or rally crowd) who flattered Trump in his presence, or his latest instructions from Putin, told him to say X” and little more.


Continue reading “Language gaps”

A missed opportunity to report on the rural opioid crisis

Columnist Salena Zito wasn’t very candid with me in a recent Twitter exchange. That’s annoying. More important, she’s missed a real opportunity to contribute genuine reporting on the rural opioid crisis.

Twitter generally conveys the emotional warmth of a contentious economics seminar without the intellectual rigor. Still, I’ve come to value my Twitter engagements with kindred spirits and others with whom I deeply disagree whose insights I value.

Ms. Zito is one person I hoped to learn from across the usual partisan and ideological lines. She is a conservative reporter and commentator who writes for the Washington Examiner, New York Post, CNN, and other outlets. Ms. Zito is most famous for her aphorism that “the press takes [President Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” This is a genuinely valuable insight into how political professionals underestimated Trump’s electoral appeal. (It is also a profound moral evasion, but that’s another matter.)
Continue reading “A missed opportunity to report on the rural opioid crisis”

So much winning!

Remember that Trump promise?  Notice any winning happening?

Me neither, but I think I see the problem. It’s a typo: should be whining.  Now everything makes sense, because whining is the pervasive, universal quality of all the discourse of Trump and his mouthpieces, reaching some sort of high point in today’s Sanders briefing , though Spicer almost pegged the meter in his very first briefing.  Fake news, lying press, I can’t get a break, Joe and Mika are so mean to me, it’s all Obama’s fault, why aren’t you writing about my historic electoral victory, Russia hoax…so much whining! Including rallies that are a new type of collective mass unison whining: all together now, China! Coal! We don’t get no respect!

It does suck to be Donald, but not for the reasons he’d like to think. Anyway, the press is beginning to realize it has to call a lie a lie to properly present the story: I propose that reporters and commentators reflect on whine as the other word most underused, in proportion to its relevance and accuracy, in discourse about our current presidential farrago. Try it: easy to say, it’s a verb, everyone knows what it means, and it has the perfectly apropos connotations of infantile affect and ineffectuality.

Whiner, that’s our Donald all over.

A long-overdue letter to the editors of the New York Times

I wrote this today in response to an editorial decrying “Two Presidential Candidates Stuck in the Past.”

Thank you so much for continuing the Times’s pattern of false equivalence between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton which did so much to elect the former and besmirch the latter. Trump’s pathological need to tell whoppers at campaign rallies instead of governing is not at all the same as Clinton’s factual answers to a reporter’s questions. There is no doubt that James Comey’s October surprise re-opening of the e-mail investigation damaged her election prospects, nor is there any doubt that Russia interfered on her opponent’s behalf, though direct complicity by the Trump campaign has yet to be proven.

The editors’ instruction to Clinton to stop talking about the election sounds a lot like, “Women should be seen and not heard.” I look forward to your issuing a similarly stern warning to Bernie Sanders, who continues to peddle his fraudulent claim that Clinton “stole” the primaries by defeating him. Until you do, I’d be grateful if you’d stop pretending that Clinton’s telling the truth is somehow the same as Trump’s lying.

Gresham’s Second Law

The inventor of the Web writes to its 2bn users.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who with Robert Cailliau created the World-Wide Web 28 years ago with the specification for HTML, has published an open letter to the Web’s 2 billion users today.

The text is here, in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. He invites everybody to share it, so I’ll save you the fatigue of clicking on the link to reproduce it below the jump. Some quick comments from me to get you going.

Internet users by country, 2011

1. Berners-Lee is one of the few people who can speak with real authority on this stuff. If he says we have big problems, it’s a safe prior that we do. If he says they can be fixed, there is a very good chance they can.

2. The approach is too narrow. I rely here on another authority, Mike O’Hare of this blog. He has written about the crisis in society created by the arrival of transmission and reproduction of information at near-zero marginal cost, leading to the implosion of subscriber revenues for journalism and the dramatic thinning out of newsroom staff.

Let’s give this insight a catchy name: Gresham’s Second Law.

Robert Gresham was an English financier of the Elizabethan era, who has given his name to the first genuine economic law: that is, a generalisation based on solid observation, explained by a robust theory. (He had eminent predecessors including Copernicus so the attribution is a little unfair.) The Law reads:

Bad money drives out good.

That is, with a bullion specie currency, when the king debases it by reducing the bullion content of the coins, the price of the metal rises in nominal terms, and anyone who can get hold of the old, fatter coins can make a quick doubloon by melting them down. So the good old coins disappear.

Gresham’s-nth-granddaughter’s Second Law, which I have just invented, is similar:

Bad information drives out good.

The cost of production of good information – science, literature, accurate reporting – is high. The cost of production of lies, bullshit, smears, pornography, and rumours is negligible. On the consumption side, bad information is designed to appeal to our lower human nature (Kahneman’s System 1). Good information is often difficult, unwelcome or both, and requires the support of the lazy System 2. So the good information always has a struggle to be heard.

Now consider a technical innovation that lowers the cost of reproduction or transmission of information: say from hand copying to print, or print to the Internet. In the print era, Adolf Hitler had to struggle to get his message across. He had to find a printer for Mein Kampf (the title was accurate). He had to build a united movement from the hard-right flotsam floating round Munich, through endless face-to-face meetings in beer halls. Even in favourable conditions, it took him a decade before he could mount a credible challenge to gain power. Contrast Donald Trump. Starting from nowhere politically in 2015, he won an election in a much larger country with little more infrastructure than a Twitter account and support from the Breitbart website.

The contrast can be explained in terms of  Gresham’s Second Law. The drop in transmission costs removes an obstacle to the dissemination of bad information, and releases its advantage in lower costs of production. So the problem has got worse.

3. Berners-Lee is right that we need to brake bad information. His example of political advertising linking to fake news is just one abuse. Americans in particular need to rethink free speech absolutism. Citizens United represented to many of us a reductio ad absurdum. As legal persons, corporations are slaves, with inferior, not equal rights to the humans they serve. Should corporate bodies – with access to much bigger megaphones than individuals – be held to a higher standard of care in their public speech? Companies that mislead their stockholders face severe sanctions, and deception in advertising is limited to suggestio falsi and suppressio veri, outright lies being banned. I don’t see why the privilege of corporate political and cultural speech should not face analogous restrictions.

4. We also have to think positively: how can the good information be paid for? The answer for science has been socialism leavened by philanthropy. Literature and music seem to be doing all right in the market system, though that’s just a non-expert impression. A sufficient number of customers for music seem prepared to pay one or two dollars for a song rather than pirate everything, a convention that relies more on an honesty-box ethic than on sanctions. The immediate crisis is in reporting. It’s good news that Sir Tim’s team will be looking at micropayments. They should be looking at socialism too. It’s already how we pay for education and health.

* * * * * *

(Letter over the jump) Continue reading “Gresham’s Second Law”

Let’s all clean up our Facebook feeds

Here’s one small, obvious way we might make the world a better place. Let’s all clean up our FB feeds of ideologically congenial, but dodgy or crackpot news stories from fringe or politically extreme websites. Many of these stories are untrue, deceptive, or otherwise misleading. They lower the quality of conversation, and they polarize us more from each other. As Timothy Lee reports in Vox, fake news is a real problem on Facebook in many ways.

Any too-good-to-check story that perfectly confirms your biases and shows the evils of political adversaries deserves an extra look. Much of the dreck that crosses my feed is from rightwing websites hawking doctored Wikileaks emails, some story about how Michelle Obama hates police, etc. But there are certainly crackpot leftwing equivalents, too. There are enough real Trump scandals. There’s no need to cry wolf on unverified charges and the like.

Here’s another modest suggestion. Before posting a story that seems to check out, we might even look at other stories on the site your friends will see if they click through. If there’s lots of obviously simplistic propaganda or offensive material nearby, you might want to take that into account before posting.

Portrait of a panic

At a Trump rally in Reno today, the Secret Service rushed the candidate off the stage after people in the audience saw a protester  and yelled “He’s got a gun.” The man was arrested and taken out of the arena after people in the Trump crowd had finished hitting and choking him.

A few minutes later, Trump was back on stage, saying “Nobody said it was going to be easy for us but we will never be stopped.” His campaign issued a statement in his name saying “I would like to thank the United States Secret Service and the law enforcement resources in Reno and the state of Nevada for their fast and professional response. Nothing will stop us — we will make America great again!”

In the meantime, one of his Twitter fans started bragging about how brave he’d been in the face of an “assassination attempt.” Trump’s Director of Social Media, Dan Scavino, retweeted that Tweet; so did Donald Trump, Jr.  Joe Walsh thundered “How come it’s only the Left that incites violence, shuts down events, & now attempts to take out the opposition?”

Now it turns out that:

  1. There was no gun.
  2. The man was a holding a sign that said “Republicans Against Trump.” 
  3. He was mobbed by Trump supporters.
  4. He has now been released without charges.

So all that fake heroism and panic turned out to be about nothing at all except the hyperactive panic reflex of a bunch of Trump supporters, the cynical willingness of the campaign to exploit the incident to create fear, and of course the willingness to be fooled - bordering on eagerness - among not only Trumpites but elements of the media.

Can you imagine the mockery Trump & Co. would have directed at Hillary Clinton if she’d run away from a nonexistent gun?

News you can use from the Wall Street Journal “mansion” section

It’s unfortunate that the various election news diverts attention from news stories that can actually help you in everyday life. For example, here is @WSJ piece titled: “Horse Lovers Pony Up for Equestrian-Friendly Communities.”


I hope that these top-1% real estate porn stories subsidize some of the Journal‘s excellent journalism. I am half-convinced the Journal‘s Mansion section, and its New York Times‘ equivalents are agitprop operations staffed by undercover operatives from the Roosevelt Institute or Jacobin, trying to raise support for the estate tax.

There is one redeeming feature. Alexia Fodere took outstanding photographs. Continue reading “News you can use from the Wall Street Journal “mansion” section”

What’s at stake

This is a great political commercial: Unironic, straightforward, unadorned by the stupid music or juvenile slow-motion perp shots we see in many negative ads. There’s no need for any of that given what’s at stake for millions of people.

Please vote-not for people like me or my relatively privileged colleagues who write for samefacts, but for many others who have so much to lose if we all let down our guard when faced with a grifting demagogue who might become president. This one really matters.

Below the fold: How we bury news about ACA because it most directly helps poor people

Today’s Chicago Tribune exemplified the problem. The news that 700,000 more Illinois residents had health insurance happened to hit on a day where a more important economic story broke: “Wrigley hotel to downplay baseball.” That story got its own box and everything, with an artist’s color rendering of the snazzy proposed 175-room hotel. Meanwhile an important and well-written story about how Illinois’s marketplace and Medicaid expansion dramatically reduced uninsurance since 2013 got basically bupkis.

My morning paper
My morning paper

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