Media Bias

At the end of his book, The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell zeroes in on a form of media bias that’s different than simply the bias that derives from the personal philosophies of the members of media.

The prevailing vision of the anointed is particularly well adapted to politics and the tragic vision particularly ill-suited.  Politicians can more readily reduce it [vision of the anointed] to slogans and images, and the media can more readily dramatize it.

For example, the media cannot identify, much less dramatize, all those individuals who would have come down with some deadly disease if it were not for their being vaccinated.  But nothing is easier to dramatize than the rare individual who caught the disease from the vaccine itself and is now devastated by illness, physically or mentally crippled, or dying.

When the government creates some new program, nothing is easier than to show whatever benefits the program produces. Indeed, those who run the program will be more than cooperative in bringing those benefits to the attention of the media.  But it is virtually impossible to trace the taxes that paid for the program back to their sources and to show the alternative uses of that same money that could have been far more beneficial.

There is likewise no way the television camera can show which unemployed people would have had jobs, if the minimum wage laws had not made them too expensive to hire at their current levels of skills and experience–and thereby cut them off from acquiring the additional skills and experience they need.

To further his last point, a recent study showed that minimum wage laws can also hurt the people with jobs. Entry level workers have less power at work because they have fewer opportunities for other employment and more people willing to take their job if it comes open.  This gives the employers more bargaining power that may result in worse treatment of the employees.

As Mike Munger said in an October 2009 EconTalk podcast, putting a floor on wages just pushed bargaining power to other margins.  This can show up in a number of ways.  Maybe employers take less care in setting work schedules to meet the workers’ needs or are more willing to violate labor laws, like having employees work off the clock, because the workers don’t want to risk losing the jobs by filing a complaint.

Sowell included this quote from Paul Weaver:

The media are less a window on reality than a stage on which officials and journalists perform self-scripted, self serving fictions.

Keep that in mind as you watch the window on the world.  In many cases they’re telling you the story they want you to hear.

McClanahan in the Kansas City Star

McClanahan’s column, DC calliope wheezes along — to no good end,  in Sunday’s Kansas City Star is worth a read.  He makes several good points.

Here McClanahan wonders about sidewalk repair paid for by stimulus dollars:

But sidewalks? It’s a bit deflating. Then you think: The government went into debt, to fix sidewalks in Kansas City? And when did fixing our sidewalks become a federal responsibility?

Another good point:

As long as I have followed politics and the markets, I can’t remember a time when people speculated openly about a possible debt default by the U.S. government. Yet that’s what’s going on.

And, I think he’s right about this:

More voters are fed up with politicians who casually spray our money everywhere and whose only approach to national problems is more regulation, ballooning entitlements, higher taxes and more debt.

Well said.

The only critique of the column I’d offer is that McClanahan wrote the Bush II ended with a deficit that totaled 1.2% of GDP, but he didn’t include what the Federal government deficit will be under Obama.

Seduced by Sophistication

Russ Roberts, econ professor at George Mason University, podcaster of EconTalk, blogger on Cafe Hayek, writer the Keynes vs. Hayek Rap and skeptic of the econometric models wrote about the “science’ of economics in Saturday’s the Wall Street JournalHere’s some key paragraphs posted on Cafe Hayek.

If economics is a science, it is more like biology than physics. Biologists try to understand the relationships in a complex system. That’s hard enough. But they can’t tell you what will happen with any precision to the population of a particular species of frog if rainfall goes up this year in a particular rain forest. They might not even be able to count the number of frogs right now with any exactness.

We have the same problems in economics. The economy is a complex system, our data are imperfect and our models inevitably fail to account for all the interactions.

The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists. Economics is a powerful tool, a lens for organizing one’s thinking about the complexity of the world around us. That should be enough. We should be honest about what we know, what we don’t know and what we may never know. Admitting that publicly is the first step toward respectability.

I agree.

I also believe other fields that have recently (in the last 50 -100 years) adopted rigorous math also fall into the trap of thinking that their field is much more scientific than is really the case.  I call this seduced by sophistication.

Math provides a veneer of science to non-scientific things.  Such math is purveyed by economists, business consultants, investment managers, statisticians, psychologists, educators, medical researchers, nutritionists, climatologists and more to sell their services and peddle their influence.

I’ve witnessed this seduction firsthand in my career.  While there are some benefits to be gained from modeling, the danger comes in not understanding its limitations.   This mistake is made by people who should know better – the people running the models.

They confuse the models with the real world, rather than realizing the models are simplistic representations of the real world that lack effective treatment of some very important real world factors and relationships.

Nassim Taleb writes about such mistakes in his books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.

Read up on Professor Roberts and Taleb’s writings.  Don’t let yourself be seduced by sophistication.

Thomas Sowell’s Anointed

I’ve dog-eared a number of pages in Thomas Sowell’s, The Vision of the Anointed.  Here he writes about the awkward way the anointed view some situations in order to avoid directly discussing an issues (p. 198):

Many of the words and phrases used in the media and among academics suggest things simply happen to people, rather than being caused by their own choices or behavior.  Thus there is said to be an “epidemic” of teenage pregnancy, or of drug use, as if these things were like the flu that people catch just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

People are often said to lack “access” to various jobs…when in fact they may not have behaved or performed in a way that would enable them to meet the same standards as others meet.  “Access” is just one of a number of ex ante expressions — “opportunity,” “bias,” and “glass ceiling,” for example — used to describe ex post results in such a way as to preempt the whole question as to why those results turned out the way they did.

Sowell calls this a “verbal sleight of hand.”  It’s easy to recognize, yet we let it happen without often calling the bluff.

To be clear, ex ante means before the fact and ex post means after.  I think a way of rewording Sowell’s last sentence above is that the anointed state their conclusions as if they’re a given and inattentive participants may inadvertently accept the conclusion.

Example: This group of people aren’t represented in the job market, they haven’t had access to the same educational opportunities.

If you begin discussing how to get this group more “access” to educational opportunities, you’ve accepted their conclusion as accurate and taken the bait to steer the discussion away from the real issue – that they believe “access” to education is the primary cause to jobs results.

Don’t accept their conclusion outright.

  • Identify their conclusion as a conclusion: “So, you believe that educational access caused the jobs numbers?”
  • Ask for the evidence they used to draw the conclusion.
  • Offer alternative reasons for the results, in this case the personal choices of the individuals involved.  For example, why are other groups, with the same “access” to educational opportunities able to overcome the hindrance of the “access”, but this group is not?

Not the goal for city government

On Friday morning, the Chris Stigall radio show in Kansas City hosts a segment with Kansas City’s Mayor Mark Funkhouser.  I give the mayor his propers for his willingness to do this.

Unlike some media outlets trying to keep their guests happy and coming back, Stigall doesn’t always toss the mayor softballs.  Funkhouser takes the hard questions and keeps coming back.

This morning Stigall said he agreed with a city council vote to not annex and add about 300 acres to the city.  Funkhouser didn’t agree with the vote.  He said those 300 acres would give the city $18 million more in revenue and “we need to grow revenue.”

Chris threw a hard ball.  He said the city needs to do a better job spending the money it has now.  I agree.  And Funkhouser agreed, but he was still fixated on the $18 million.  He didn’t seem to consider that the revenue came with additional costs – like providing city services to the additional 300 acres.

Further, it concerns me when I hear the head of any government body say, “we need to grow revenue.” As a shareholder of many businesses, that’s what I want to hear from my managers.

But, the city is not a business.  City government’s job is to provide basic services – roads, police, fire protection – to its citizens.  It’s goal should be to provide the best quality services at the minimum cost.

In the business world, we classify departments in the business as a cost center or profit center.  Profit centers are departments that bring in revenue from the customer – a retail store, for example.  A profit center’s goal is to maximize revenue and profit for the business.

A cost center is a department that provides some service to the business but doesn’t directly deal with the customer or bring in revenue.  Examples of cost centers are accounting or legal departments.  A cost center’s goal is to provide the business with the best quality service at the minimum price.

For society, government is a cost center.  It’s job is to provide basic services at minimal prices.

Unfortunately, many governments squander their current sources of revenue and then go search for more to squander, leading to silly statements like, “we need to grow revenue.”

George Will Says No

George can carve a few good words out every once in awhile. These words are from his latest column, In Praise of Saying No.

Today’s health policy “summit” comes at a moment when, as happens with metronomic regularity, Washington is reverberating with lamentations about government being “broken.” Such talk occurs only when the left’s agenda is stalled. Do you remember mournful editorials and somber seminars about “dysfunctional” government when liberals defeated George W. Bush’s Social Security reforms?

The second reason filibusters are supposedly unconstitutional is that they exacerbate the Senate’s flaw as “inherently unrepresentative.” That is, the Founders — who liberals evidently believe were dolts or knaves — designed it to represent states rather than, as the House does, population.

But both parties have been situational ethicists regarding filibusters.

Liberals are deeply disappointed with the public, which fails to fathom the excellence of their agenda.

I saw this line of reasoning from liberals begin to emerge a week or two ago.  They claim that the U.S. has become “ungovernable” because major legislation has been so tough to pass.

That assumes too much.  That assumes that the legislation is good and it assumes the legislation is something that the people want.

Liberals and some conservatives forget that government’s power in our country derives from the consent of the governed.  Because the people haven’t willingly given consent to your ideas isn’t evidence of ungovernability.

Keep Your Advice Motley Fool

Brad Hessel and Madge Cohen do a decent job at laying out the things causing problems in the medical and health insurance market in the United States in their piece at the Motley Fool, Dear President Obama, Per Your Request…

I’m not a fan of all of their recommendations.  They prescribe a meddlesome role for government in everything from mandating coverage to setting education curricula and maintaining health records, all beyond the limited role of government should have.  The Founders of this country believed in the limited role of government to protect our freedom from overreaching politicians.

Hessel and Cohen recommend overreaches from the outset.  Do we want the government to maintain our individual health records?  Do we really want them to mandate coverage?  Is this still a free country?

Over time it would get worse.

For example, under their recommendations, by what mechanism would government be prevented from prescribing lifestyle choices in the name of “keeping health care costs down.”

Let’s revisit Obama’s criteria:

1) Bring down premiums

2) Reduce deficit

3) Cover the uninsured

4) Strengthen Medicare

5) Stop insurance company abuses

Health Savings Accounts, elimination of the tax advantage employer-provided plans have and fewer mandates can accomplish #1 and #2.

#3 should be changed to: cover everyone that wants to be covered.  Many uninsured are uninsured by choice.  I see no reason to force them to do something they don’t want to do.  And, if you accomplish #1 and #2, that should reduce, if not eliminate, the number of people who are uninsured not by choice.    For those who still cannot afford coverage, I could entertain ideas of targeted assistance in the form of health coupons, much like food stamps.

#4 If we go to HSA’s, over the course of the next generation or two, we’d be able to reduce the need for Medicare as people would be able to save for a fair chunk of their health care costs.

#5 I think this is overblown.  Getting government involved in health care would give rise to much more abuse.  Make the health insurance market more transparent by eliminating the employer tax advantage and much of this (if much exists) will go away.  Do we often hear of auto or home insurance company abuses?  No.