David R. Henderson  

The News and Me

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I've been traveling for 7 of the last 9 days and, as a result, haven't kept up with the news as much as normally. And doing so has made me realize how little I miss it. There's a lot of noise that, in the end, doesn't matter much.

For example, I've heard something about what President Trump said to the mother of a soldier killed in action. I've learned over the years that I can almost never get enough accurate information from a headline or even from one whole news story. If I really want to know what happened, I need to read at least 3 news stories or blog posts from media and individuals with diverse viewpoints. That takes time. And it matters for what, exactly? Not much.

Ultimately, I will judge Trump on what he and his appointees do in policy. I will still follow that. Government policy is one of the main things I write about. But the other news items are not worth my becoming informed about, given my high opportunity cost.

And on top of all that, it's simply very liberating to be disconnected from the 24/7 news cycle.


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CATEGORIES: Media Watch




COMMENTS (14 to date)
Gareth Morley writes:

I think you miss the reality that politics is really about which groups in society have status and which are disrespected. The last week has been very informative.

Justin writes:

The reality of politics is that so much of it is merely theater, distraction. The incident referenced by David is the perfect example.

Gareth Morley writes:

You aren't exactly wrong, Justin, but the "theatre" is more important than the policy. The evidence is that as long as you avoid North Korean-style craziness, economic policy has little effect on growth. At least within the bounds of the actually plausible, environmental policy has little effect on the environment. Education policy has little effect on education. No one knows anything about foreign policy. Etc.

But who counts as a real American? That matters. Cities could burn over that question. Trump and Kelly are trying to reverse Truman's achievement in setting the US military towards a more-or-less racially neutral institution. Trump is trying to racialize professional sports. Those things will have effects long after we find out the modifications to health and tax policy don't amount to much.

Matthew Moore writes:

Do you remember Bryan's discussion of Rolf Dobelli's article on this topic?

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/03/the_case_agains_6.html

In summary:

'Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.'
-- Ben Hecht

Tom DeMeo writes:

I'm not sure you want to base your conclusions about the legitimacy of following the news in general with the legitimacy of following the news concerning our current President. He has a very particular and unique skill, "the likes of which we've never seen before", as he would put it.

Trump both dominates and manipulates news cycles in a way no other public figure ever has. I think you almost have to ignore a good part of it.

David R Henderson writes:

@Gareth Morley,
You aren't exactly wrong, Justin, but the "theatre" is more important than the policy.
I can point to lots of policies that are important. Obama transformed health insurance and Trump may do so again. Reagan’s introduction of tax bracket indexing was important. The fall of the wall, partly in response to Hungary’s government tearing down fences with Austria, was important.
@Matthew Moore,
Do you remember Bryan's discussion of Rolf Dobelli's article on this topic?
I do now. Excellent post. I think it’s overstated, but I’m certainly planning to move in his direction.
@Tom DeMeo,
I'm not sure you want to base your conclusions about the legitimacy of following the news in general with the legitimacy of following the news concerning our current President.
Good point, but I would bet--we’ll see--that whoever the next President is, I’ll have the same reaction to news that I’ve had over the last week or so.

Gareth Morley writes:

@DavidRHenderson,

Sure, if you count the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe as "policy", then policy is important. But even there, the difference between Hungary today and Hungary under Kadar isn't really that great. Compare that to Yugoslavia under Tito and Yugoslavia once tribal/ethnic polarization took over and all the young men with guns could do whatever they wanted. Bigger difference for the average person.

I would say that the achievement of the US in making professional sports and the professional military into arenas in which there is a modicum of post-racial meritocracy was a bigger deal than indexing tax brackets or even Obamacare. Trump blowing that up is big because tribal polarization is always bigger than a change in the marginal tax rate.

For the tiny group that care about it, policy is a distraction from identity psychodrama. For everyone else, that is just what politics is. Even in the areas economists care about, that's what matters. If Canada and Mexico's economy are screwed up because Trump blows up NAFTA, it won't be because of supply management or softwood lumber. It will be because of racial identity politics and gender dominance rituals. That's what there is to Trump, and the "sideshow" is way more important than policy positions or who gets on the Council of Economic Advisers.

Mark writes:

Gareth,

I don't see how Trump 'blew up' this supposed post-racial meritocracy in either sports or the military, accepting that such a thing existed. Colin Kaepernick started 'racializing' football before Trump came along, and if you're referring to this spat over the soldier who died in Niger, nothing Trump did or said had anything to do with race. Frederica Wilson and her sympathizers in the media fabricated the racial element out of whole cloth.

Gareth Morley writes:

@Mark, I don't particularly want to play this game. Every society has identity cleavages. A government can try to manage them or can try to make them worse. They are obviously getting worse and it takes a heroic level of cognitive dissonance to pretend Trump isn't making them worse. Indeed making them worse is all he has going for him because he is manifestly indisciplined and incompetent. Colin Kaepernick is a private citizen protesting what he sees as injustice by the police against his ethnic group. He isn't the President of the United States or his Chief of Staff attacking nonwhite judges, trying to get professional athletes fired, racializing disaster relief and telling grieving widows that their husband's lives were expendable and then, instead of apologizing, engaging in racialized insults of a family friend. This is all much more important than the indexation of tax brackets. It is about defining who is a proper American in a deliberately divisive way.

john hare writes:

I have not had a television since 2009. Obviously I prefer it that way. It does lead to disconnect with others around me from time to time though when some major emotional event is taking place.

Mark writes:

"A government can try to manage them or can try to make them worse. They are obviously getting worse and it takes a heroic level of cognitive dissonance to pretend Trump isn't making them worse."
I don't doubt that he is, but if that differentiates him from other politicians, it's a difference of scale, not of essence. Politicians' jobs are to divide and conquer. Did you really see Obama or Bush as "bringing us together?"

And you seem to be moving the goal posts. You blamed Trump for ruining "post-racial meritocracies." I pointed out they were already ruined, Trump was just sticking his fingers in them. Indeed, the politicization of hitherto apolitical spheres of life is part of what created Trump.

"racializing disaster relief and telling grieving widows that their husband's lives were expendable and then, instead of apologizing, engaging in racialized insults of a family friend."
What racialized insult? From what I read, he referred to the widow's husband as "your guy" and Rep. Wilson spun an imaginative tale about how he was suggesting black people couldn't have husbands. It struck me as a clear case of making something out of literally nothing. And how did he racialize disaster relief?

It seems like many people have forgotten that it is possible to criticize someone without calling them racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Not every human action falls along the fault line of some 'oppressor/oppressed' axis, and I think many of Trump's critics have at least as hard a time getting past that as him and his supporters.

Weir writes:

In a bad novel, the characters are caricatures. That's like the news. Journalists create these one-dimensional heroes and villains, and affix human names to them, but they're not real people.

Real people aren't always cackling and crowing and twirling their moustaches. Journalists love B-movie dialogue, when the villain spouts off with some ludicrously evil declaration of nefarious intent. But when you watch these live-action cartoons, what can you learn about actual human beings?

You can learn a lot about the woman who wrote The Fountainhead, or the woman who wrote Gone With The Wind. Likewise, you can learn a lot about Elizabeth Drew from all her articles in the New Yorker or the NYRB. People must see something compelling in that kind of simplified, stark outline of an implausibly vicious or implausibly virtuous protagonist. There's a big audience for page turners. People want to see what happens in the next episode. Elizabeth Drew called one character Ronald Reagan and another Barack Obama.

The woman who wrote The Future is called Miranda July, and she's also the star of the movie, and you need to imagine her bewildered look when she says, "I always want to follow the news, but then I'm so far behind, and now it's just like, what's the point?"

What's the point of the news? What's the point of The Da Vinci Code? And even a good movie needs to recoup its budget. The trick's always been to create something good even though there are these massive audiences out there, eager to eat up something ludicrous and dumb.

Tom DeMeo writes:

@Mark

"A government can try to manage them or can try to make them worse. They are obviously getting worse and it takes a heroic level of cognitive dissonance to pretend Trump isn't making them worse."
I don't doubt that he is, but if that differentiates him from other politicians, it's a difference of scale, not of essence. Politicians' jobs are to divide and conquer. Did you really see Obama or Bush as "bringing us together?"

In the end, you are arguing that Trump is not behaving differently than the politicians that came before him.

There are differences in scale, they are differences of orders of magnitude, and it seems like you are conflating the two. Trump is not just another politician. One would think that even his supporters could admit that.

Mark writes:

"There are differences in scale, they are differences of orders of magnitude, and it seems like you are conflating the two. Trump is not just another politician. One would think that even his supporters could admit that."
I'm using the term 'scale' interchangeably with magnitude. And my point was that politics, by definition, is an exercise in division. Most politicians don't go as far as Trump; that's hist 'great' discovery: that you can go that far without being punished by the public for it.

And I'm not a supporter of his. But someone is going to accuse Trump of crashing the Hindenburg, I feel obligated to disagree.

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