Monday, June 21, 2010

This week's "This American Life" is awful.

Just listened to This American Life. Some background on TAL: It is the one show on NPR that understood that the entire financial crisis was caused by banksters trading stuff they had no conception of whatsoever. It looks like this sanity has worn off. They have now contracted the austerity virus, and they are spreading it. The premise of this latest show was that the WHOLE WORLD (ZOMG JESUS!) is facing a debt crisis-- not necessarily a recession, mind you, but a debt crisis. Now this would not be an issue if our political press were competent. Unfortunately, our lazy, incompetent press has a readymade narrative to deal with political crises and particularly budget intransigence: Those who refuse to slash education or the safety net are being children, whereas those who recognize that a balanced budget is more important than education or economic security are the grownups. We are told that the grownups are being "Serious", whereas the children, who are invariably liberal, only care about "pet projects", "votes", or worse, "pork". Of course, conservative Democrats help to fulfill this narrative by refusing to raise taxes on rich people. Indeed, conservative Democrats are likely to buy into the idea that raising taxes actually decreases revenue, or the idea that rich people can't afford to pay more. This is the real intransigence. It forces liberal Democrats to find money any way they can to keep families off the streets, in the hopes that perhaps next year they will be able to raise more stable forms of revenue.

According to this latest show's first half, the role of "the children" is played by the Democrats in charge of the New York state legislature. "The grownup" is played by Very Serious person Richard Ravitch. Ravitch is one of those great hangers-on in politics. He came up through the LBJ administration, but unlike-- say, Bill Moyers, Ravitch took a very well-worn path to Serious Personhood: (1) stay out of political battles, (2) work on only the most non-partisan projects you can find, and (3) accumulate gravitas. The result of this effort? Behold. Also, Ira Glass will call you a hero.

So what does Ravitch have to deal with? What is the background story, according to This American Life? Interestingly, very little is mentioned about the current recession we are in. Instead, the show focuses on one-time revenue sources called "one-shots" and the political climate that forces lawmakers to resort to one-shots. Now, on the one hand, explaining the standard budget clashes that occurred in every state long before the recession is essential to understanding the budget dynamics of the present. However, the show bolsters the false sense that it was this standard political bickering over budgets that caused the recession. Those who have listened to TAL during the recession have been treated to some excellent, easy-to-understand analysis of what happened to cause this recession. In short, it was banking shananigans, not political shananigans. To the extent that politics was involved, it was the failure to regulate or even pay attention to what was going on on Wall St.. If you are an informed news consumer, you will know this. But if you are not, and if all you pay attention to are headlines and talking points, you may begin to think that deficit spending somehow had something to do with the recession. Worse yet, a Democrat you may have voted for may say something as criminally misleading as this: "We've asked government to take on too many tasks that cost too much money, and here we are, in a quagmire, in many ways because of it." That was a statement from Governor David Paterson that Ira Glass let pass. No mention of whether "quagmire" referred to the recession, mind you. We are just left to stew in this uncertainty. It's what modern political journalism does best.

Another egregious part was when Ira Glass explained that the stimulus money was being used as a "one-shot". Glass said that people might not realize the stimulus was being used this way. This has been a Republican strategy to sour the public on the stimulus money. What they have done, and what Glass has done (most likely unwittingly) is to feign surprise whenever and wherever they see the stimulus money applied. Of course, the fact that stimulus money was being used to plug state budget shortfalls was no secret. That money allowed states to keep on paying for Medicaid and to keep people employed. That money did more to stimulate the economy than one-time payments to individuals did because the Feds knew that the states would actually spend the stimulus, rather than invest it. However, the show failed to mention that the state stimulus money was-- you know, actually spent. Instead, New York's budget director said that the stimulus would actually exacerbate the problem in unprecedented ways. Why? Because the money will run out. Yeah, I shit you not. According to This American Life, money that runs out in two years is not actually money.

To deal with the current shortfall, Ravitch roles out his plan. His "bipartisan" plan, at least we are told, does not include tax hikes on those who can afford it. It only includes cuts and the implementation of standard accounting practices. In lieu of taxes, Ravitch proposes taking out a 2 billion dollar loan. Republicans opposed this because they saw it as a way to enable more deficit spending on the part of Democrats. Some Democrats, supposedly the conservative ones, opposed it as well. Governor David Paterson did not support the Ravitch plan because it was politically unpalatable, though we are not told why. At the end of the day, the listener is left with the impression that a tax hike on the rich would be even less popular than a 2 billion dollar loan. I would like to have seen the polling on this question. We are also left with the impression that in New York state, liberals are children who simply fail to realize that money does not grow on rich people. (Yeah, who knew? Guess where it grows instead!)

The second half was somewhat better. It examined the difference between two small Caribbean islands: Barbados and Jamaica. The show spent most of the time on Barbados. Barbados is doing well; Jamaica is poor. Both countries had to deal with the IMF and its standard imposition of austerity. We learn that how the two islands dealt with fiscal austerity determined their disparate economic fortunes. As I said, most of the segment was on Barbados. The only thing we are told about Jamaica is that their PM basically told the IMF to go fuck itself. He was determined that for once, the poor would not be the ones to suffer the IMF's kiss of death alone. He actually told the upper classes that if they did not want to shoulder their share of the IMF's austerity, they could leave their island paradise. That turned out to be a mistake, 'cuz they did.

Now those who are susceptible to conservative talking points will point to Jamaica as confirmation of all they know and all they will ever know. They will say that John Galt WILL leave you if you tax him. And what can we liberals say? Unfortunately, we live in a world where small countries like Jamaica are at the mercy of rich people who can pick up their capital and leave, thereby devastating the communities that raised them. This sad situation does not confirm conservative philosophy. It only proves that conservatives and rich people are dicks.

In the global recession of 1991, Barbados had its turn at the IMF's chopping block. This American Life tells the story of how, instead of dividing along class, Barbados was able to negotiate a deal whereby the austerity measures would be shouldered evenly across the class spectrum. To this day, there is a culture of cooperation between labor and management that is pretty inspiring.

So that's the story about how we easily forget why we're in a recession to begin with and how the upper classes can use the media (including the lib'rul media) to convince people that the only grown-up response is that everyone, including the poor who have no control over the various whims of our financial elite, must sacrifice. They convince people who cannot give to give more. They guilt them into the poor house, or no house at all.

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