The Media, Pennant-Racing, and Living Within Our Means

A popular narrative of the recent election is that Americans are fed up with the federal government’s inability to “live within its means.”  Real American people have to; state governments have to (more or less); the federal government should as well.  I could write for days about the ways in which the analogy from personal finance to government finance fails, but who has the time? My concern in this post is with the media coverage of this narrative on and shortly after the mid-term elections.

On election night, and in the days following, Ollie and I watched quite a bit of coverage, spread between four stations: NBC, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC.  When interviewing newly elected members of Congress (usually Republicans), the TV people asked two perfectly legitimate questions:

  1. How were you able to win?
  2. What are your legislation priorities?

The Republicans interviewed all presented a nearly identical response:

  1. The people want a limited government that lives within its means.
  2. (A) Extend the Bush tax cuts, (B) Repeal Obamacare.

I am not going to debate the value of limited government as a political philosophy (or ask questions about what it means in practice for a given public official).  I simply want to point out that, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, extending the Bush tax cuts on those making over $250,000 a year would cost the federal government an estimated $680 Billion over the next ten years.  According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, “Obamacare” will save the Federal Government $1 Trillion Dollars over the next ten years.  The long-term budget impact of these policies is even more substantial.

I want to point this out because not a single “television journalist” did.  Nor did they ask a simple follow up question as to whether the interviewee’s policy priorities might be in conflict with the voters’ wishes.  It is at least theoretically possible that each of the recently elected members of Congress is ready to propose a series of initiatives to combat their massive debt-generating policy priorities (Cut the defense budget in half? Raise the Medicare eligibility age to 70?)  Nonetheless, I never, even once, saw this follow up question asked.

Why not?  Two answers spring to mind.  First (perhaps inspired by my recent participation in a panel discussion of Noam Chomsky’s political economy), all of these stations are part of large multinational corporations whose principle owners stand to benefit from the extension of the Bush tax cuts.  Second, the cultural and personal narratives of elections that make for easy and popular copy (the political equivalent of a baseball pennant race) crowd out any discussion of substantive policy matters.  Americans like to follow pennant races, root for their favorite team, make knowledgeable observations based on statistics, etc.  We simply have no time for or interest in considering, you know, what governments actually do. Just which of these explanations is more accurate, or more disturbing, I leave it to you to decide.

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10 Responses to The Media, Pennant-Racing, and Living Within Our Means

  1. Josh says:

    I think I’d synthesize the two reasons you offer: the self-interest of the media corporations in seeing things this way, combined with the preference the public seems to have for “horse race” narratives. One feeds the other, after all. And it’s not just the *owners* of the corporations who benefit, it’s the corporations themselves. Institutional self-interest just prefers the status quo in this context, even if hit helps no one in particular. That’s why whenever these reporters are interviewed about their job, they lament the very process in which they are so enmeshed, and why they seem to view it as so inevitable.

  2. Lime says:

    You are surely right that the two are mutually reinforcing.

    You write, “Institutional self-interest just prefers the status quo in this context, even if it helps no one in particular.”

    What does “status quo” mean in this context? Conventional wisdom? Current tax structure? Structural drift toward greater inequality?

  3. Josh says:

    I think “status quo” just means the way things are now as regards institutional power structures. So for whatever reason, people working for a large company like a TV station or media conglomerate, over time, come to identify with and act on behalf of its goals, even if they sincerely don’t support them – Institutional inertia more or less – I didn’t really mean to imply anything deep about that, I just thought I’d throw it out there.

  4. David says:

    Good post, Lime, and nice to read your words again after a long absence. I’m actually surprised you could sit through network coverage of the elections, especially given how much you know about how vacuous and skewed it is. Do you feel obligated, as a political philosopher, to watch this garbage?

  5. Lime says:

    Thanks David. I did watch out of a sense of obligation, though perhaps not as a political philosopher perse. Imagining myself to be at least a somewhat action-oriented theorist, I think it is necessary to give some consideration to how ideas get disseminated into the public discourse. In particular, I wonder what organizations or institutions can provide meaningful clues to working and middle class groups about the impact of complex economic policies on their lives (and which fail miserably in this respect).

    I suppose if the social scientist in me was more dominant than the moral philosopher, I might find it all fascinating. Instead, it mostly makes me angry.

  6. David says:

    Lime writes:

    “I simply want to point out that, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, extending the Bush tax cuts on those making over $250,000 a year would cost the federal government an estimated $680 Billion over the next ten years. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, “Obamacare” will save the Federal Government $1 Trillion Dollars over the next ten years. The long-term budget impact of these policies is even more substantial.”

    I didn’t know this, and find it nearly unconscionable that these facts (and Lime’s word is good enough for me) have not been more aggressively advertised. What the hell is wrong with the Tax Policy Center? Why isn’t this information more widely disseminated and publicized? What the hell is wrong with the Democrats, who couldn’t have wished for a more effective argument for an electorate by all accounts concerned above all with government spending???

  7. Lime says:

    Well, I think both the Tax Policy Center and the CBO see this as beyond their purview (greater publicity might be seen as advocacy). Several commentators (print/blog) noted the above numbers, but as far as I can tell, the television media completely ignored them (disclaimer, I don’t watch TV news that often).

    As for the democrats, I have a few thoughts. First, they suck! Second, a bit more charitably:
    1. They need donations from wealthy individuals to survive in this climate.
    2. Their polling told them that “Independent Voters” (traditionally the least informed of all) don’t see tax cuts as relevant to budget shortfalls. Really.
    3. Their polling told them they couldn’t campaign on health care and win.

    My inclination was that 3 was wrong. However, one of the few to openly campaign on the merits of health care reform, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was thumped. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania did surprising well with that strategy (but still lost). Perhaps a concerted effort to unify around this issue nationally would have been more successful. With so many freshmen democrats from conservative districts up for reelection in the House, however, this strategy was probably too much to hope for. Of course, they were going to lose anyway. At least this strategy would have changed the terms of the debate. Also, I think that more democrats would have turned out to vote. But what do I know?

  8. Josh says:

    “1. They need donations from wealthy individuals to survive in this climate.”

    This point’s been made before, but, I’m struck by how willing we are to use the word “survive” in this context. I’m honestly confused about why someone would run for office simply to hold office! After all – if it’s money they’re all after, there are higher paying jobs out there. And also jobs where you don’t have to fly back and forth between Washington DC and their home town, etc. etc. Why do they want to “survive” in office by not doing anything? Just so they can shake people’s hands and pretend they’re in charge, while the people who give them the checks really are?

  9. Lime says:

    Certainly there must be a will to power aspect, but I think survive here means to survive to fight another day. I do think that Democratic legislators fought very hard last term, though, and if it wasn’t for the ridiculousness of the Senate, the country would be in a better place right now.

    As for money, (1) they are already wealthy, and (2) a K street lobbying job awaits the fallen, so no worries on that front, regardless of party affiliation.

  10. Nates says:

    It was a pretty good two years on the legislative front (by dysfunctional-American-politics standards), so I’m happy about that. In a way, I think the successes of 2008 made it more difficult to gather around a common message this time around–think of all those new House members from conservative regions. I suspect that a populist, anti-corporate-abuse campaign might have worked, if it had been pushed consistently from the beginning, but there’s no way the Blue Dogs would have gone along with that. I guess they’re no longer an issue, now, so perhaps there’ll be a more unified campaign next time.

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