Monday, June 16, 2008

Are People Smarter than Media Pundits? Yes; Something Is Deeply Amiss

Gregg Easterbrook is a well-regarded Establishment journalist with an entertaining style. Rather like his colleague James Fallows, Mr. Easterbrook comes across as a nice, earnest guy who can write engagingly about a variety of topics.

Recently he's tackled media bias towards negative stories, claiming things are actually pretty darn good and the prevailing sense of doom-and-gloom is the result of MSM spin rather than a reflection of reality.

I respectfully beg to differ. I think the reverse is actually the case: the Mainstream Media is filled with magical thinking and people are correctly sensing that "Something Is Deeply Amiss."
Here's Mr. Easterbrook's best shot: Life Is Good, So Why Do We Feel So Bad? (Wall Street Journal)

"The case that things are basically pretty good? Unemployment is 5.5%, low by historical standards; income is rising slightly ahead of inflation; housing prices are down, but the typical house is still worth a third more than in 2000; 94% of Americans do not have threatened mortgages, and of those who do, most will keep their homes.

Inflation was up in 2007, but this stands out because the 16 previous years were close to inflation-free; living standards are the highest they have ever been, including living standards for the middle class and for the poor.

All forms of pollution other than greenhouse gases are in decline; cancer, heart disease and stroke incidence are declining; crime is in a long-term cycle of significant decline; education levels are at all-time highs.

Sure, gas prices are up, the dollar is weak and credit is tight – but these are complaints at the margin of a mainly healthy society.

Yet the mood of public discourse is four-alarm panic. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed "Americans' views on the economy and the general state of the country have hit an all-time low," with 81% saying the nation is on the "wrong track" – the worst-ever number for this barometer. Some 78% told pollsters the U.S. is worse off today than five years ago, the highest percentage to say this since the CBS News/New York Times survey began tracking the question in 1986. Watch any news channel, listen to any political debate, read any pundit. The consensus is we're headed to hell in a handbasket.

The relentlessly negative impressions of American life presented by the media, including the entertainment media, explain something otherwise puzzling that shows up in psychological data. When asked about the country's economy, schools, health care or community spirit, Americans tell pollsters the situation is dreadful. But when asked about their own jobs, schools, doctors and communities, people tell pollsters the situation is good. Our impressions of ourselves and our neighbors come from personal experience. Our impressions of the nation as a whole come from the media and from political blather, which both exaggerate the negative."

Ironically, Easterbrook gives voice to just the sort of cherry-picked "evidence" that characterizes MSM cheerleaders--making him a leading cheerleader. Before we pick up a set of bright gold pom-poms and join Easterbrook in the MSM line screaming, "Yea, home team! Everything's great!" let's consider a few points:

Junk science is always based on cherry-picked evidence which has carefully been selected or edited to support a pre-selected, heavily biased "truth". Is Easterbrook right and doom-and-gloomers have cherry-picked all the "bad things" to support their point of view, or is he the one doing the cherry-picking?

How trustworthy is the official data which claims inflation and unemployment are still low? Even Bond-Guru Bill Gross of PIMCO is conceding that the official data is not reflecting reality; he has recently mocked it as misleading.

So Easterbrook's first breathless rah-rah is to unskeptically swallow whole a bunch of data which is questionable at the very least. "Low inflation and unemployment" is rather obviously more a reflection of politically-manipulated "spin" than the reality experienced by standard-issue Americans leading non-elite lives. (For more on this, please visit Shadow Government Statistics by John Williams.)

The analysis of the typical "nice guy looking at stuff with a journalist's eye" is often misleadingly superficial. I vividly recall a long piece either Fallows or Easterbrook wrote in the early 80s lambasting the U.S. Air Force for not buying the cheap trainer-fighter, the F-5, instead of the larger, far more costly F-15.

This analysis, published in a mainstream respected magazine (The Atlantic), made it appear to be completely nonsensical to buy the F-15 instead of the cheerfully cut-rate F-5, as if fighter-bombers were more or less like commute cars and a Chevy Nova was just as good as a Cadillac, so why spend more?

How about the ability to fly in poor weather? Oops. Part of the weight and expense of the F-15 lay in its advanced avionics which enabled it to fly at night in lousy weather--an ability you might want as a pilot or President if the enemy was unsporting enough to start a war in bad weather.
The rest of this MSM "analysis" was riven with the same sort of completely uninformed drivel and misconstrued "evidence." How about survivability in air-to-air combat? How about being able to carry enough air-to-air munitions and targeting capability to overcome numerically superior foes?

That didn't figure into the "analysis" either, revealing that the journalist hadn't bothered talking to pilots who were entrusted to win whatever conflict our civilian leaders sent them to fight. If it were up to the superficial, massively biased MSM writer, it would have been with vastly inferior weapons.

It didn't occur to the writer of this gleeful slam on "needlessly expensive aircraft" to wonder how the pilot might feel, knowing he was risking his life in a cut-rate aircraft with minimal avionics, weaponry, speed, etc. How aggressive could we expect him/her to be in a circumstance where he knows he's flying an inferior plane with cut-rate avionics and capabilities? Which one would you rather fly, the bargain-basement trainer or the one which might actually enable you to survive air combat?

I mention this 1980s-era "analysis" to show that the MSM has long been filled with appalling superficiality even at the highest levels of American journalism. This is neither new nor surprising, but Mr. Easterbrook may well have reached a new pinnacle of perverse blindness to reality, as my handy little chart illustrates the realities we all know from experience--not from the supposed MSM "negativity" Easterbrook fingers as the guilty party:

If junk science is based on cheery-picked data and magical thinking, how about Easterbrook's pom-pom waving that 94% of U.S. mortgages are just peachy-keen fine? Gee, he didn't mention that over 20% of subprime mortgages are already in default, and thousands more are lining up to join the foreclosure parade.

How about all the mortgages which are 90-days late? Hmm, no mention of them, or of all the mortgages which are in default but which lenders are hiding to keep their insolvency less visible. How about all the millions of households which are "underwater," i.e. they owe more than their dwelling is worth? That didn't rate a mention, either.

Mr. Easterbrook displays less skepticism than any high-school journalist in the country, and for this remarkable ability to wear three pair of rose-colored glasses at once (apparently no light seeps through at all), his insensibly, incomprehensibly selective cheerleading is elevated to the august pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Household wealth is just dandy--unless you looks at statistics. Courtesy of astute reader J.B., here is a chart of household real estate and financial assets:

Please go to to view charts.

What planet Mr. Easterbrook inhabits is indeed a mystery. Here on Planet Earth, a moribund, easily manipulated Mainstream Media is waking up to trends which have been in place for years: to wit, Peak Oil, the Housing Bubble Bust, fraud, insane risk and mismanagement in investment banking and lending, the risks of derivatives, the commercial real estate market's demise, local governments heading for bankruptcy, the collapse of the dollar and the resulting rise in inflation and the cost of imports--I could go on, but you already know all the profoundly important factors Easterbrook ignored/chose to gloss over.

Did Mr. Easterbrook ever pause his sweatily exuberant cheerleading to ponder what the consequences will be of government agencies' healthcare costs rising 7-fold? Apparently Mr. Easterbrook's Ivory Tower is somewhere safely off-planet or blissfully isolated from the reality the rest of us have to deal with: AC Transit to get an earful on fare hike ideas:

The (regional bus service) deficit comes mainly from a sevenfold increase in employee health care costs this decade and diesel prices that have gone from 92 cents per gallon in 2001 to $3.62 today, even with the agency's bulk discount.

According to Mr. Easterbrook, factories come and go, so what, piffle, my dear. Nice, but something tells me Mr. Easterbrook is not a resident of the upper Mid-West. Three or four millions jobs lost, and well, ten or so million folks negatively affected/driven into destitution as a result, but Mr. Easterbrook is blissfully confident another factory will open soon, somewhere--somewhere like Hanoi.

And how about that spiffy clean environment, eh? Well, shipping $1 trillion in manufacturing to China from the U.S. probably had something to do with that amazing reduction in pollution.
After decades of supposedly professional journalism, Mr. Easterbrook is mystified and rather saddened, it seems, that people are so downcast about the nation's future even as they delight in their personal lives. He would prefer consistency, people, so good golly, start reporting how miserable you are with your own life, family, job, etc.

Even more astonishing, he seeks the villain behind this astoundingly unjustified negativity, and finds it in the mirror--it's us, the mainstream media! It's all our fault that Americans aren't dancing in the streets and smelling the wildflowers and bursting spontaneously into song--we've reported too many horrribly misguided bits of negative news. "If it bleeds, it leads"-- really, we all need to shape up and start reporting the good things, the nice things, the positive things. Then our naturally positive attitude will painlessly be restored.

For instance--when the recession really deepens, 80% of the little people will still have some sort of job--won't that be newsworthy? And a third of U.S. homes will still be owned free-and-clear. See? It's all in what you choose to emphasize. And some are more equal than others--oops, scratch that--it's negative.

I don't know what's more disheartening: that Mr. Easterbrook is so bafflingly moronic, or that the Wall Street Journal saw fit to print this utter claptrap.

Unfortunately, Easterbrook is not alone. I was watching Washington Week in Review on PBS last Friday evening. In response to a question from the moderator Ms. Ifill, a journalist from the WSJ replied that the economy "might be in for a few rough months."

Rough months? How about rough years, or even rough decades? If this is what passes for responsible journalism, then we are truly in murky waters. If any glimmer of the darker realities actually experienced by real live Americans gets in the MSM, then cheerleaders like Mr. Easterbrook are ready to denounce it all as "negative."

It is a supreme irony, isn't it? The cheerleading MSM is denounced as negative, and blamed for the sour mood of the nation's citizenry.

In typical MSM fashion, Mr. Easterbrook over-estimates his own importance amd that of the MSM. Even with the propaganda machine running 24/7, the citizen's actual experience cannot be papered over or subsumed by lies--or even by the unwitting irony of a cheerleader blaming his own kind for the gloom.

Regular people know things are deeply amiss. And they're right.

Of the dozens of items which cross the transom here at OTM (no donations, boo-hoo, it must be my negativity), consider just these few reports from reality:
Frequent contributor U. Doran sent in this story: House Prices, the Wealth Effect and the Cash-in-Hand Effect.
Knowledgeable correspondent Jim S. sent in this link: Real Estate and Housing Outlook.
Longtime correspondent Jed H. submitted this story: 'Scab' driver burned in his lorry as European protests against high fuel prices turn violent.
But the real news is Ms. Magillacuddy's garden is doing just fine, and all those stories about the corn crop being ruined by rain and flooding are just hand-wringing negativity. So get with it, people, and grab your pom-poms, and let's all shout in unison: Whip inflation now! Whip inflation now! Yea, home team!

There. Everything's fine now.

Readers Journal commentaries week of June 20, 2008 Electric vehicles, long-wave cycles pointing to World War III, bikeways to L.A., Chinese goods and competition, and more.
Triage in the Upcoming War for (Energy) Independence (Paul Tolnai, June 9, 2008)
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): A Peak-Oil "Bridge Fuel" (Matt Gaspar, June 15, 2008)

Thank you, Reed H. ($20), for your very generous donation and on-going encouragement. I am greatly honored by your support and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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