Hard economic truth for $2000, Alex

If only that were the figure—the real issue on deck in Washington, D.C., the issue that drove last week’s election results, is economic recovery: when will the economy get stronger, when will job growth get stronger.  It’s the issue that all of most of the nation’s journalists largely ignored, except for predictable emotional pitches.  Alan Mutter recently pointed out the reasons why: the economy is a hard story to tell, and it has nothing to do with easy stories like who is the new president and what will he do, and why do we think he’ll do it, and what do the polls say about what the people think about what he’ll do.

…the myopic press stuck to covering the inside-the-Beltway story of the day – health care, Afghanistan, Supreme Court picks – instead of zeroing in on the things that really mattered to all but the very wealthiest Americans.  Things like: Will I keep my job? What will I do if I get fired? Can I keep my house? Will I be able to send my kids to college? How can I afford to retire?

It’s anybody’s guess if the myopia will be cured soon; the prognosis is not encouraging, but there’s always hope.  There are some trying to sound the alarm: Mutter points out Paul Krugman at the New York Times as one good example (and notes that the good professor is, in fact, not a journalist in the usual sense of the word, but an economist).  I’ll give kudos to Loren Steffy, the very good and very readable business columnist at Houston’s Leading Information Source.  He’s written an excellent summary of where we stand, and it’s not pretty.  Quoting the Congressional Budget Office,

“Unless policymakers restrain the growth of spending substantially, raise revenues significantly above their average percentage of (gross domestic product) of the past 40 years, or adopt some combination of those two approaches, persistent budget deficits will cause federal debt to rise to unsupportable levels.”

Some of the people crying about the national debt these days come off as wacky, but there is a scary kernel of truth in that cry and our government is going to have to address the problem—and blindly rubberstamping an extension of tax cuts followed by another round of collecting campaign donations from lobbyists is not the answer.

The national economy, at its core, is subject to the same rules as your household economy and mine.  If you spend more than you take in, you go into debt; reducing your income doesn’t magically translate into higher revenues; you pile up enough debt and most of your payments are going to the interest and very little to principal, and you never get out of debt.

I’m not saying you and I, or the government, should never borrow money, although it would be sweet not to have to.  But you borrow money to buy a house or a car; sometimes you have to charge to your credit card, like when the extra thousands it takes to buy a replacement air conditioner are not just sitting there in your savings.  But you can never borrow enough to repay all of the principal—ask Bernie Madoff.  At some point you have to bite the bullet and make unpopular choices.

Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka writes today about how the economic rescue plan known as TARP catches flak as an example of big government run amok, despite (a) the fact that it was dreamed up and implemented during the Bush Administration, allegedly a conservative regime that believed in small government, and (b) is costing less than one-tenth of the advertised $700 billion.  TARP was the best thing the administration could come up with to save the whole economy, and if some of the bad guys who caused the collapse got caught up in the rescue then we’re going to have to learn to live with that.

What will Congress and the president do to get this country’s economy headed in the right direction?  I hope more news agencies commit the resources to dig into the question and produce some journalism that will help the economic illiterati like me understand what’s going on.

For that to happen we need more of them to adopt the idea Jack Shafer discusses today in Slate: we don’t need journalists to be unbiased in the sense of not having an opinion on issues, we need more who are honest and curious and hard-working and are committed to using an objective process to reach some verifiable conclusions.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism, traditionally, it was the journalistic method that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist. As long as the partisan journalist comes to verifiable conclusions, we shouldn’t worry too much about the direction from which he came.

This will require an agreement that there are—as a…well, as a matter of fact—certain verifiable truths, and abandoning the current craze of dismissing as biased any “facts” that don’t conform to one’s current opinions.  How about we start with a little optimism about each other on that score.

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IPTV threatens democracy—more after Oprah

Does the delivery system really make a difference, or do we just like to let ourselves get all caught up in something new?  I think the answer is, yes.

Last week Lord Google announced Google TV, its proprietary flavor of The Next Big Thing: Internet television, IPTV.  I’m not surprised to see Google out front on this: a system to deliver television programs over a fast Internet connection to a set top box for presentation on the ginormous high definition display at the heart of the family entertainment center.  If I can sit in my big comfy chair and enjoy cool Internet stuff on the same big clear monitor where I watch my teevee shows, and can get my shows on demand instead of on someone else’s schedule, why wouldn’t I?

This nirvana is not without its perils, though (but you knew that, right?): along with further diminishment of shared communal experience, local broadcast TV stations and their news operations are at economic risk.  The respected former newsman and Silicon Valley CEO Alan Mutter makes the case for the threat to local stations: once I can watch anything on my giant TV on demand, I will; so, the value item that local TV stations offer advertisers—a mass audience at a time certain—will start to diminish; and with it, the high profits local stations earn.

Then Mutter takes the next step: reduced profits mean less revenue available for the local broadcaster to spend on programming, specifically local news, which is the majority of any local station’s local programming.

Now I have my issues with local TV news, but I agree with Mutter:

A contraction in local TV news coverage, combined with the recent curtailment of newspaper coverage in most communities, will deprive our society of even more of the authoritatively reported information that is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.

So, it’s our convenience and amusement vs. an informed and active citizenry?  Uh oh…