All posts by Sheila

Propaganda’s Willing Audience

Talking Points Memo recently shared the findings of a paper by Bruce Bartlett, former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, documenting the so-called “Fox Effect.” Bartlett’s conclusions are similar to those of others who’ve studied the political impact of what is widely recognized as the propaganda arm of the GOP.

A 2007 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that the arrival of Fox had a “significant effect” on the presidential elections from 1996 to 2000: Republican candidates gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in towns that broadcast the channel. (The research also credited Fox with GOP gains in the Senate.)

Meanwhile, a 2014 study by The National Bureau of Economic Research found that the likelihood of voting Republican increased by 0.9 points among viewers who watched “four additional minutes per week.”

Bartlett also found research that shows the Fox Effect caused congressmen in both parties to “increase their support for Republican policies.”

Last year, researchers out of Princeton and Vanderbilt found that during the Clinton years, members of Congress became “less supportive of President Clinton in districts where Fox News begins broadcasting than similar representatives in similar districts where Fox News was not broadcast.”

No serious observer doubts that Fox is a wildly inaccurate propaganda mill. (Several studies have found that people who watch Fox regularly know less than those who don’t watch any news at all.) The more important question, of course, concerns what researchers call “self-selection,” and what more down-to-earth folks call the “chicken and egg” conundrum. Why do certain people choose to watch Fox? Why does its propaganda work? More to the point, upon whom does any particular propaganda work? What makes person A receptive to misinformation that is crude and obvious to person B? 

At least one writer suggests that “white fragility” is the fertile ground being tilled by Fox and conservative talk radio.

White fragility is a termed coined by Robin DiAngelo, an associate professor of education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. In her 2011 academic pedagogical analysis titled “White Fragility,” DiAngelo goes into a detailed explanation of how white people in North America live in insulated social and media spaces that protect them from any race-based stress. This privileged fragility leaves them unable to tolerate any schism or challenge to a universally accepted belief system. Any shift away from that (like a biracial African-American president) triggers a deep and sustaining panic. Racial segregation, disproportionate representation in the media, and many other factors serve as the columns that support white fragility.

At the end of the day, there are two very different reasons people follow the news: to understand what is happening in the world (even if those events or outcomes aren’t consistent with their worldviews, and may require adjusting those worldviews), or to confirm pre-existing fears and beliefs.

Propaganda outlets let partisans select reinforcement over reality.

As Bartlett points out, however, when reality bites and self-delusion is no longer possible (when, for example, the polls predicting Mitt Romney’s defeat turned out not to be “skewed”), the shock and disbelief can be overwhelming.

Economic Straw Men

A friend recently sent me one of those irritating articles purporting to lecture “liberals” about economic realities. This one was unusually smug. It was written by a self-styled “economist” and published by Forbes; titled “Ten Economic Truths Liberals Need to Learn,”   it mostly rebutted “straw man” positions that no one–liberal or not–actually takes.

I won’t go through the whole list, because you can read it for yourselves, and because we’ve all heard these “truths” before.

“Government cannot create jobs” is an oldie but goodie. Like many of the others, it is “true” only in a very limited sense; obviously, government can and does create jobs for teachers, police officers, and other government workers, and when it invests properly in infrastructure, those investments also generate jobs.

What that flip formulation also misses is the essential role government plays in providing the infrastructures that make private enterprise and private job creation possible.

Several other “truths” on the list are equally wrongheaded: the author claims that low wages are not exploitative, for example–among other things, conveniently overlooking the fact that taxpayers are making up the (enormous) difference between low wages and living costs, and thus effectively subsidizing corporate profits.

I guess it depends upon what your definition of “exploitative” is.

But the “truth” that sent me over the edge was this one:

Education is not a public good. We provide publicly funded K-12 education to all (even to non-citizens), but the education provided produces human capital that is privately owned by each person. This human capital means more work skills, more developed talent, and more potential productivity. People with more human capital generally get paid more, collecting the returns from their education in the form of higher earnings. One common defense of education as a public good is worth refuting here. Yes, education helps people invent things that benefit society. However, they will expect to be paid for those inventions, not give them away for free in return for their education.

This betrays an appalling lack of understanding of both education and the public good.

READ MY LIPS: Education is not synonymous with job training. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s essential–but a genuine education is far more than a skill set that makes someone marketable in the dystopic society idealized by the (presumably trained but clearly uneducated) twit who wrote this.

Job training produces people who produce things. Education produces people who create art and music and literature, who develop philosophies and political systems, who innovate and imagine and beautify cities and civic environments.

Job training allows people to be productive economic units. Education allows people to be responsible citizens.

If a polity consisting of thoughtful and informed and genuinely educated citizens isn’t a public good, I don’t know what is.

What We Do and What We Say

My friend Morton Marcus has a good column in the recent issue of NUVO.

He reflects upon the most recent legislative session, and on Indiana politics generally, and in a make-believe conversation with one “Victor Van Nutt,” he makes a point my father used to emphasize: if you want to know what people really believe, what they really value, you’ll look at what they do–not at what they say.

“If we wanted local control of schools, we never would have allowed the state to take over financing education. If we wanted strong communities, we would not have voted for property tax controls starting with Otis Bowen and ended up supporting a constitutional amendment capping those taxes.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “if we wanted economy in government, we would have eliminated township governments, merged adjacent cities and towns, and merged under-populated counties.

“Then,” he went on, “if we truly believed in the virtues of small business, we wouldn’t yield our tax policies to the imagined desires of out-of-state corporations, hoping they will bring any kind of jobs to Indiana.

“We would stop shifting taxes to households and away from the big corporations. Remember, many small businesses are basically households not paying corporate taxes. We would not be anti-union since small businesses are not likely to be unionized.”

Until and unless Hoosiers start following what our government is actually doing–until we stop taking political figures at their word, and ignoring what they actually do once in office–nothing will change.

And of course, that advice also applies to us. If we just criticize those in power, content to complain about the “World’s Worst Legislature” while finding excuses not to vote–if we bitch and moan at cocktail parties while doing nothing to help change the system that keeps returning these same people to office–well, that says something about We the People and what we really value.

What We Know That Just Ain’t So

I forget the source of this old quote, but I’ve always liked it: “The problem ain’t what we don’t know, it’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

Recently, a regular reader sent me an article from “NeuroLogica Blog” (there’s obviously a blog for everything) that documented that hoary saying.

When asked what percentage of the population is Muslim the average answer was 15% when the reality is 1%. How many people are Christian: average answer 56%, reality 78%. How many people of working age are out of work and seeking a job: average answer 32%, reality 6% (at the time of the survey). That one seems strange. Did people really think the unemployment rate was 32% (that was average, which means some people thought it was higher)? During the great depression the unemployment rate peaked at 25%. What percentage of girls between 15 and 19 years old will give birth: average guess 24%, reality 3%.

As the author noted, the interesting (indeed, the pertinent) question is – why are so many people so misinformed about the facts? After all, these are verifiable and concrete data points, not “facts” that are really value judgments like “socialism is bad” or “religion is good.” And as the author also noted, the internet makes it incredibly easy to locate and verify these facts.

The article listed “the usual subjects”–education that doesn’t sufficiently teach critical thinking skills, a fragmented and frequently lazy media, politicians whose spin (and outright lies) are rewarded. All of these are implicated, but perhaps the best explanation is confirmation bias.

…the tendency to notice, accept, and remember information which confirms your existing narrative. The fact that we have narratives also is a huge factor. There is a tendency to latch onto themes and narratives, and then use facts to support those narratives, rather than to alter our narratives based on the facts. It is therefore no surprise that facts which have political implications have been so distorted to fit political narratives.

In other words, confirmation bias convinces us of things that we want to believe, but that “just ain’t so.”

And we wonder why Americans can’t find common ground.

The Death of Satire?

A regular reader of this blog made an astute observation a few months ago; in response to a discussion of seemingly ridiculous behavior by some political figure or other, he noted that “Their reality has lapped our satire.”

No kidding.

I was scrolling through my Facebook page, and came across a quote attributed to Congressman Trent Franks, questioning the Pope’s grasp of the bible, and insisting that a proper reading of that text did not require helping the poor. In a sane age, I would have immediately concluded that the quote was fake, but then I remembered an incident I personally witnessed a few years ago, at a debate about same-sex marriage sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Two of us on the panel spoke in opposition to the (then pending) constitutional ban. Curt Smith from the Indiana Family Institute and someone whose name I don’t recall spoke in support. During the question and answer period, Rabbi Dennis Sasso quoted a passage from the bible as a reason to oppose the ban; Smith responded by telling the Rabbi that he’d misinterpreted the bible, and offering to send him some materials that “explain that passage properly.”

In my ethnic group, that’s called “chutzpah.” I’ve never forgotten it. So I suspended disbelief and googled the Trent Franks quote, which did turn out to be inaccurate. (Franks had suggested that the Pope should stay out of “politics.”)

The moral of this story is that it is getting increasingly difficult to tell whether a story is satirical or true. When state legislatures pass laws “protecting” pastors from performing same-sex marriages, or laws forbidding food stamp recipients from buying seafood; when Sarah Palin says things like “Paul Revere warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our guns,” when pretty much everything that comes out of the mouths of people like Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, Ben Carson and so many others sounds like a headline from the Onion, is it any wonder that we approach reports about even the most outrageous statements with a suspension of disbelief?

Actually, disbelief over accurate quotations threatens to become my permanent attitude….