Sunday, January 26, 2014

When Articles Belie Their Headlines

Getting a good headline is very important in framing an article. It sets the tone of the piece and hints at the overall argument. However, sometimes, articles belie their headlines. I've come across too glaring examples of this over the past few days.

On Friday, Huffington Post published an article by Sam Stein entitled "Obama's First State Of The Union Marked A Turning Point, One His Old Advisers Now Regret." The funny thing is, though, how the titular advisers seem largely absent from the article itself.

The framing of the article implies that Obama's advisers regret their austerity turn in late 2009/early 2010, expressed clearly in his first State of the Union address in January 2010. Remember, of course, that he was the one who created the Simpson-Bowles Commission shortly thereafter.

Obama advocated "belt-tightening," that cliched and awkward metaphor that always has overtones of masochism:
"Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions," Obama said. "The federal government should do the same. So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year. "Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years," Obama added. "Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will."
So, let's look at what the old advisers are saying, per Stein. Here's former OMB director Pete Orszag:
"Looking back, I remain disappointed that we were not able to embrace with gusto and then remain fully committed to the 'barbell' approach, which combines up-front stimulus and back-loaded deficit reduction," said Peter Orszag, who was Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget at the time. "In retrospect, which always provides more clarity than is available at the moment, the time to have doubled down on that approach (including rhetorically) was probably around the 2010 State of the Union."
Let me translate "back-loaded deficit reduction" for you: cutting Social Security and Medicare. Orszag has been a consistent advocate of such granny-starving policies. Stein quotes Berkeley economist Brad DeLong:
"It made it impossible for those who wanted a sane macroeconomic policy to argue for a second round of fiscal stimulus, because even the president agreed that the time was to tighten belts," said Brad DeLong, professor of economics and chair of the political economy major at the University of California, Berkeley.
DeLong, however, was not one of Obama's advisers.

Stein later quotes AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers:
"The pivot towards austerity and away from jobs in early 2010 was a catastrophically destructive decision," said Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO.
Silvers, however, was not an adviser.

Stein quotes Jared Bernstein, who was an adviser to Biden. He thus can sort of count as an adviser to Obama, but indirectly. "White House adviser" would be more apt.
"That is a level of austerity that would make Wolfgang Schaeuble [the German finance minister] blush," said Jared Bernstein, then Vice President Joseph Biden's top economic adviser.
"It was a mistake," said Bernstein, who, to this day, jokingly says he "blocked out" the memory of that State of the Union. "The perception was that the public viewed stimulus spending as wasteful and deficit reduction as responsible," he said. "And even though many members of the economic team and I think even the president himself recognized that the economy would be better served by a more-stimulus fiscal policy, I think the politics ended up informing the economic policy in a pretty damaging way."
And he quotes Evan Bayh, who was a senator, not an adviser (and an awful senator at that!):
"You have to remember that speech didn't occur in a vacuum it was really at the beginning of the full-throated counterattack by the tea party forces," said former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), one of the Democrats who cheered the president's debt reduction focus. "With regard to the spending freeze and capping pay and all that, those were nods to the general public to prove you are not completely tone-deaf.

"2010 was not 2009. A lot had happened in between there," Bayh added. "The president had to take into account the general environment in which he was operating. Did he have some sort of philosophical epiphany and was that a major inflection point? My answer would be no. He was acknowledging the tone of the times."
What does the article tell us about "Obama's old advisers"? We learn that Orszag is sad he didn't get a "Grand Bargain" and that Bernstein (if we are willing to call him an adviser to Obama, rather than more aptly the "White House") thinks austerity was bad. Bernstein, however, does want to cut Social Security, as his colleagues at CBPP do.

In short, two of Obama's former advisers are sad that they didn't get the type of Grand Bargain (short-term stimulus combined with cuts to social insurance programs) that Pete Peterson wants. The headline implies some type of actual self-reflection. If only.

Another example of an article belying its headline is the article "Social Responsibility Weighs Heavy on Economic Chieftains at Davos" in Andrew Ross Sorkin's Wall Street-coddling Dealbook section of the New York Times.

There are more words in that article showing Davos attendees shunning social responsibility than showing them expressing it. I counted. (254 words vs. 247 words)

This article on "social responsibility" is full of rich people complaining.

Here's an example of a rich guy complaining and wanting to be anonymous so that he doesn't look like he is complaining:
“It used to be just bankers that were bashed,” the chief executive of a large European consumer goods company said with a sigh after coming out of his morning trance. He spoke on condition of anonymity, perhaps not wanting to seem as if he was complaining. “Now it’s all of us.”
And here's someone complaining about taxes, again anonymously:
Tax increases on the wealthy were less popular. Even the tax increase of roughly 0.5 percent on those making half a million dollars or more proposed by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio prompted many to warn that this would “send the wrong signal” and shift incentives too far. “It might be enough to persuade people to move out of the city,” said a New York-based fund manager.
And here are three paragraphs devoted to a rich Republican donor who hates Obama:
Indeed, some at Davos bristled at any notion of directly taking money from their wallets. For Anthony Scaramucci, the head of the investment firm SkyBridge Capital, attendees must work on creating more opportunities for others to climb the economic ladder. But anything more drastic, he said, was out of the question.

Mr. Scaramucci, who is a prominent Republican donor in the United States, said that he had noticed some hints of economic populism here. He placed some of the blame for that on President Obama and others who, he said, argue that the “cool thing” is to redistribute wealth.

Referring to Paul Singer, the head of the $23 billion hedge fund Elliott Management and a Forum attendee, Mr. Scaramucci said, “To take it from Paul and give it to someone else, I think that’s unfair.”
So where's the social responsibility in this article?

Well, 115 of the 247 words related to social responsibility are about the Pope giving a speech.

Then we have this rather crude simulation of refugee life:
For those wanting to experience real hardship (for an hour or so) there were multiple sessions each day that attempted to simulate what it is like to be a refugee in a camp. During these sessions actors dressed up as soldiers stormed in, pretending to beat up another actor dressed up as a refugee and firing fake gunshots. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe of Nestle were among the executives who participated.
An hour or so? Quite different from the days, weeks, months, and years that actually refugees have in this situation. The experiences are not comparable, and you shouldn't need to go through a suffering simulation in order to support policies to alleviate suffering.

And then there was tax evader Richard Branson encouraging philanthropy, the preferred version of "social responsibility" by the plutocratic class.
Many, of course, agreed. Richard Branson of Virgin said those lucky enough to have “made wealth” should support philanthropic causes. “Once you have paid for breakfast, lunch and dinner, once you have paid for your children’s education, once you have a roof over your head, you don’t need that much more,” he said, urging fellow billionaires to give generously.
Davos attendees are having such a change of heart this year!

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