Tag: journalism

Journalism and Generality

The media makes it hard for ordinary people to be libertarians. In large part, this is because journalism is in the business of selling panic—panic about terrorism, panic about drugs, panic about food, panic about pornography, panic about our health care system. If it’s not an emergency, it’s not news. To the lazy journalist, everything becomes an emergency—and emergencies always—always—demand state action.

The media makes things hard for the would-be libertarian in other ways, too. Consider this story from today’s Washington Post, about… well, it’s hard to say, actually:

Senate Democrats unveiled a plan Tuesday to save $21 billion over the next decade by eliminating tax breaks for the nation’s five biggest oil companies, a move designed to counter Republican demands to control the soaring national debt without new taxes.

With the proposal, Democrats sought to reframe the debate over debt reduction to include fresh revenue as well as sharp cuts in spending. For the first time, Democratic leaders suggested an equal split between spending cuts and new taxes — “50-50,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

That represents a larger share for taxes than has been proposed by either President Obama or the bipartisan commission he appointed to recommend how to cut the national debt.

So far, the Democratic tax agenda is focused on ending subsidies for big oil companies, a hugely popular proposal involving what Democrats see as a prime example of wasteful giveaways in the tax code. By raising the issue, Democrats are trying to force Republicans either to drop their rigid stance against new taxes or to defend taxpayer subsidies for some of the world’s most profitable corporations, including Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

The proposal came in response to remarks Tuesday by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said raising taxes is “off the table.” A day earlier, he gave a speech demanding more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for GOP support for an increase in the legal limit on government borrowing through the end of next year.

Where am I confused, you ask? On almost everything a libertarian ought to care about. I’ll explain.

One of the key aspects of any good law is generality—that is, equality before the law. As F. A. Hayek put it:

[T]hough government has to administer means which have been put at its disposal (including the services of all those whom it has hired to carry out its instructions), this does not mean that it should similarly administer the efforts of private citizens. What distinguishes a free from an unfree society is that in the former each individual has a recognized private sphere clearly distinct from the public sphere, and the private individual cannot be ordered about but is expected to obey only the rules which are equally applicable to all….

The general, abstract rules, which are laws in the substantive sense, are… essentially long-term measures, referring to yet unnkown cases and containing no references to particular persons, places, or objects. Such laws must always be prospective, never retrospective, in their effect (The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 14, section 2).

Now, with every passing day our government stomps all over this generality requirement again and again, chiefly in the economic sphere. But is it doing so on the front page of today’s Washington Post? That’s a good question.

I can think of lots of ways we might deny a tax break to a certain five oil corporations. Some are decidedly better than others in their generality. Consider the following, ranked from least general to most:

  1. “The corporations known as Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are hereby denied tax break X. All others still qualify, or not, as they did before.”
  2. “Oil corporations with an annual revenue above $198 billion are denied tax break X.”
  3. “We find that tax break X itself is lacking in generality. It is hereby repealed, and the overall corporate tax rate is increased accordingly.”

Which one are they proposing? From the story’s first paragraph, we could easily conclude that it was (1). Many people on the left would be happy with (1), because big corporations are anathema to them, and everything they do is evil, and punishing them—generality be damned—is just great.

But then, it could also be (2), and this measure is somewhat more general, even if ConocoPhillips—the smallest company on the list—just so happens to have an annual revenue of $198.655 billion. As Hayek noted, “[C]lassification in abstract terms can always be carried to the point at which, in fact, the class singled out consists only of particular known persons or even a single individual” (ibid., section 4). Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

And finally, there’s (3), clearly the winner in terms of generality. Is that in fact the proposal being discussed by members of Congress? Or is it still more general than that—something perhaps as described by my colleagues Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren earlier this month?

Last week President Barack Obama responded to rising public anger over soaring gasoline prices by banging the drums for the elimination of various tax breaks enjoyed by the oil and gas industry…

[L]et the record show that President Obama is right… about these tax breaks. They make the economy less — not more — efficient and do nothing to reduce prices at the pump.

Rigging the tax code to make investments in manufacturing artificially more attractive than investments in something else is an enterprise designed to harm non-manufacturers for the benefit of … manufacturers. Conservatives who want government to leave markets alone have no business throwing their political bodies in front of this tax break. If their political rhetoric means anything, they would see the president’s bid and raise him by calling for total repeal of this tax break for everyone, not just for oil and gas companies.

If only we were so lucky! Getting back to the Post, we learn much later in the story—in the fifteenth paragraph —that the congressional proposal “would close several long-standing tax loopholes, yielding roughly $2 billion a year in savings to be applied to lowering the deficit. It would affect only the five largest oil companies, excluding smaller producers.”

This is confusing to the point of deception. Does it really “close” a loophole to take a few entities and exclude them from the prior exclusion from the tax? By my understanding, it makes the law less general, more convoluted and more arbitrary, than it was before. Close the loophole—or just don’t close it, I think a Hayek might say. Don’t make companies play human Tetris to figure out whether they aren’t not un-disincluded.

One day I think people will look back on our era—from roughly the civil rights movement to the present—and marvel. They will be amazed at how, while the law grew much more general regarding many non-economic matters, it became increasingly partial and favoritist when it came to running a business. At times our journalism and even our language seemed blind to this contradictory development, which only encouraged it. Even thinking about the generality of our laws is made difficult when it’s just not a topic on the national media’s radar.

But equality before the law should apply, well, equally. Shouldn’t it?

Rise of an Imperial City, Cont’d

From time to time my colleague David Boaz posts about the many ongoing ways in which the economy of Washington, D.C. continues to outpace that of the rest of the country, thanks to a well-paid and layoff-resistant workforce of federal employees and contractors, a thriving lobbying sector, and so forth. Thus David noted this week that the Washington, D.C. metro area has now attained the highest family median income of any major city, and last month that, according to Census Bureau figures analyzed by Newsweek, “seven of the 10 richest counties in America, including the top three, are in the Washington area.” I thought I’d add three more data points to this picture:

  • Even as most of the country remains mired in serious housing recession, the capital has bounced back smartly: “The District claims the top ranking on the agency’s state-by-state list of annual price appreciation, with 5.29 percent growth since the third quarter of last year,” compared with a 3.2 percent decline nationally. Virginia and Maryland did less well, but most of both states’ population lives outside the D.C. orbit. [Washington Post]
  • Commercial rents in downtown Washington have likewise defied the steep national slump, as the federal government expands its demand for office space: “The rise has been so dramatic that for the first time in five years, the average asking rent in D.C. is higher than in New York City, according to CoStar and a new report of third-quarter activity by commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley…. ‘The federal government has created a smooth but slow rise in rents [in D.C.],’” noted one real estate economist. [Washington Post again]
  • A business boom – in journalism? Even as veteran reporters elsewhere scrounge for work, talent and money continue to pour into Washington’s specialized news-gathering business, most particularly the sorts of newsletters that (for a subscription price in the thousands of dollars) will bring you fresh and fine-grained news of the doings of federal regulatory agencies in fields like energy, pharmaceuticals, securities and telecommunications. “[B]y dint of its regulatory powers, its executive orders, its judicial decisions, its ability to conjure money out of thin air, and its budget-making authority, Washington dictates who can do business and how,” writes Jack Shafer. “… Although $5,700 for a subscription to Bloomberg Government might sound steep to you, it’s chump change for businessmen who become the first in their cohort to read Line 125 in a pending bit of legislation and can place a bet on – or against – it in the market.” [Slate]

Prizes for Writing on Freedom

Submissions for the Bastiat Prize for Journalism and the Bastiat Prize for Online Journalist close at the end of June. Journalists, bloggers, and writers of op-eds are encouraged to submit their work here. The International Policy Network awards prizes of up to $10,000 to  “writers anywhere in the world whose published articles eloquently and wittily explain, promote and defend the principles and institutions of the free society.”

Note that these prizes are not (just) for students. Last year’s winners included law professor John Hasnas, for an oped published in the Wall Street Journal; Robert Guest, Washington Correspondent of the Economist; Robert Robb, editorial columnist of the Arizona Republic; British politician and blogger Daniel Hannan; and Shikha Dalmia, online columnist for Forbes and Reason.

Topics:

Political Science and Washington D.C.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on political science and journalism.  It cites the Monkey Cage blog as an example and explains:

[P]erhaps The Monkey Cage’s greatest influence has been in fostering a nascent poli-sci blogosphere, and in making the field’s insights accessible to a small but influential set of journalists and other commentators who have the inclination—and the opportunity—to approach politics from a different perspective.

That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes… [C]onsider the president. In press accounts, he comes across as alternately a tragic or a heroic figure, his stock fluctuating almost daily depending on his ability to “connect” with voters. But political-science research, while not questioning that a president’s effectiveness matters, suggests that the occupant of the Oval Office is, in many ways, a prisoner of circumstance. His approval ratings—and re-election prospects—rise and fall with the economy. His agenda lives or dies on Capitol Hill. And his ability to move Congress, or the public, with a good speech or a savvy messaging strategy is, while not nonexistent, sharply constrained.

These powerful, simple explanations are often married to an almost monastic skepticism of narratives that can’t be substantiated, or that are based in data—like voter’s accounts of their own thinking about politics—that are unreliable. Think about that for a moment, and the challenge to journalists becomes obvious: If much of what’s important about politics is either stable and predictable or unknowable, what’s the value of the sort of news—a hyperactive chronicle of the day’s events, coupled with instant speculation about their meaning—that has become a staple of modern political reporting? (emphasis mine)

Political science can, at its worst, be hopelessly abstruse, cliquish, and regressive.  But at its best it can illuminate our thinking about issues, up to and including raising the possibility that certain things may be unknowable (at least by a journalist’s or policymaker’s deadline), or that things may be structurally determined.  As the snip above suggests, journalists, for understandable reasons, tend to privilege what you could call “agent-based” explanations for phenomena.  They tell Americans that the president’s poll numbers are rising or falling on the basis of some speech he gave (or didn’t give), or that some particular point of a political campaign determined the outcome.  Turn on a cable news program and you see this sort of uninformed and unfalsifiable popping off all the time.  In most cases, those claims, and even those sorts of claims, are completely wrong, as political scientists know.  On the other hand, journalists’ incentives do not lead them to highlight the latest political science research or write articles that could be headlined “Economic Conditions Set to Determine Another Election.”  People like stories, so that’s what journalists give them.

Question: What political science articles should journalists and policymakers be forced to read–and comprehend–before writing about/making policy on their particular issue area?

For foreign policy types, two articles come immediately to mind (although one was published in an econ journal):

Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser, “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” Review of Economics and Statistics 48, no. 3 (August 1966): 266-279.

Some suppose that the apparent disproportion in the support for international undertakings is due largely to an alleged American moral superiority, and that the poverty of international organizations is due to a want of responsibility on the part of some other nations. But before resorting to any such explanations, it would seem necessary to ask whether the different sized contributions of different countries could be explained in terms of their national interests. Why would it be in the interest of some countries to contribute a larger proportion of their total resources to group undertakings than other countries? The European members of NATO are much nearer the front line than the United States, and they are less able to defend themselves alone.  Thus, it might be supposed that they would have an interest in devoting larger proportions of their resources to NATO than does the United States, rather than the smaller proportions that they actually contribute. And why do the NATO nations fail to provide the level of forces that they have themselves described as appropriate, i.e., in their common interest? These questions cannot be answered without developing a logical explanation of how much a nation acting in its national interest will contribute to an international organization….

Since the benefits of any action an individual takes to provide a public or organizational good also go to others, individuals acting independently do not have an incentive to provide optimal amounts of such goods. Indeed, when the group interested in a public good is very large, and the share of the total benefit that goes to any single individual is very small, usually no individual has an incentive voluntarily to purchase any of the good, which is why states exact taxes and labor unions demand compulsory membership. When - as in any organization representing a limited number of nation-states - the membership of an organization is relatively small, the individual members may have an incentive to make significant sacrifices to obtain the collective good, but they will tend to provide only suboptimal amounts of this good. There will also be a tendency for the “larger” members - those that place a higher absolute value on the public good - to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, as the model of alliances developed below will show.

And, to mount up on another of my hobbyhorses (although I partly disagree with the explanation in the article),

Stephen M. Walt, “The Relationship between Theory and Practice in International Relations,” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 8 (June 2005): 23-48.

Abstract: Policy makers pay relatively little attention to the vast theoretical literature in IR, and many scholars seem uninterested in doing policy-relevant work. These tendencies are unfortunate because theory is an essential tool of statecraft. Many policy debates ultimately rest on competing theoretical visions, and relying on a false or flawed theory can lead to major foreign policy disasters. Theory remains essential for diagnosing events, explaining their causes, prescribing responses, and evaluating the impact of different policies. Unfortunately, the norms and incentives that currently dominate academia discourage many scholars from doing useful theoretical work in IR. The gap between theory and policy can be narrowed only if the academic community begins to place greater value on policy-relevant theoretical work.

What articles would you nominate in your field of interest?

Diversity in the Newsroom

The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, is very concerned that “journalists of color” make up only 24 percent of the Post’s reporters and editors. That might seem like a lot to some observers, but Alexander notes that minorities are 43 percent of the people in the Washington area, and it’s essential that the newsroom staff mirror the community the paper is serving.

Well, maybe. As a longtime Post reader, I don’t really know which of the editors and reporters are nonwhite, and I don’t really care. I would hope that the Post would hire the best reporters and editors, in order to put out the best possible paper – with the best possible reporting, writing, copyediting, proofreading, and analysis.

But if reflecting the community is essential, why are race and gender the only categories to be considered? Alexander doesn’t mention sexual orientation. Does the Post have gay (and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and questioning…) journalists in the correct proportions?

And how about ideological diversity? In the 2008 exit polls, 23 percent of voters described themselves as white, Protestant, born-again or evangelical Christians. A survey of American religion said that 34 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born-again. How many editors and reporters at the Post would describe themselves that way? I’ll bet that born-again Christians are the most underrepresented group in elite newsrooms. But they weren’t mentioned in Alexander’s column. A CBS/New York Times poll in December found that 18 percent of respondents described themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement. How many Post journalists are? The Post has recently assigned reporter Amy Gardner to “train her sights on the emerging Tea Party movement and developments inside the Republican Party.” Is she a Tea Party Republican? If not, isn’t that sort of like hiring a white person to “train her sights on African-American politics and developments in the black community”? Cato’s studies on the libertarian vote classify about 15 percent of Americans as libertarian. How many Post journalists would be categorized as libertarian?

Slate, the online magazine owned by the Washington Post Co., which shares some content with the Post, reported in 2008 that 55 of its 57 staff and contributors would be voting for Barack Obama, with 1 for John McCain and one for Libertarian Bob Barr. I’m not going to look up the details, but I’m pretty sure that’s unrepresentative of the country as a whole and even of the Washington area.

If newspapers are going to move beyond strict merit hiring to hire reporters and editors who “reflect the community,” then they shouldn’t stop at race and gender. Let’s see some ideological diversity in elite newsrooms.