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Romer: If a patient doesn’t feel well after life-saving surgery, that doesn’t mean the surgery didn’t work. (AP photo)

Lessons on covering politics from the late David Foster Wallace

COMMENTARY | July 09, 2012

Rule One in covering the presidential campaign, writes Henry Banta, has been to not allow information – even important information – to trump the entertainment factor, especially not in economics reporting. Time to do away with Rule One, Banta says, and stop fearing boredom.

By Henry Banta
In his insanely brilliant novel The Pale King, David Foster Wallace observed the role that dullness plays in making of public policy: “ ...if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. No one will pay attention because no one will be interested, because, more or less a priori, of these issues’ monumental dullness.”  “Abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy.” Nowhere is this principle better demonstrated than in the media’s approach to economic issues.
There is almost universal agreement among the political pundits, forecasters, and sooth-sayers that the economy is the central issue in this year’s presidential election. In its simple form the argument will be something like this: The Republicans will claim that the economy is in an unacceptable condition and the President has failed miserably on his promise to make it better. The President and his supporters will admit that things are not perfect but they are much better than what the Administration inherited and far better than if they had not implemented their policies. In large part the argument will turn on whether the Administration’s stimulus and related measures worked or not. The Administration says it did; the Republicans say it didn’t.  
Of course one might argue, cynically but with much justification, that the electorate couldn’t care less about truth or falsity of the claims in any objective sense. All that matters is the voters’ subjective sense of how at election time the economy is affecting them individually. But this is a shabby excuse for the lack of attention from the media.
Press coverage could well swing this election if it takes on – or fails to take on – the validity of the economic philosophy of each of the parties, and the intellectual integrity of their leadership. And the poor overall press coverage to date tells us an immense amount about the state of public discourse in our country and the failure, with very few exceptions, of the popular media.
One is driven to the conclusion that the coverage by the major media – network news, Sunday talk shows, most newspapers and a lot of talking heads – has been abysmal, irresponsibly inept.  

Sorting out the facts in two incompatible economic theories
A very strong argument can be made that, although many may consider financial coverage a difficult and technical issue (i.e. challenging to the attention span of not only the average citizen but also of most reporters) it is at its base a factual question. Facts are, after all, what reporters are all about, or at least are supposed to be. It is factual reporting that we all expect, and indeed depend on, from journalists. If all political pundits were to suddenly disappear it's hard to see how we’d be a lot worse off. Factual journalism is a much different matter; we rely on it to keep us out of the dark. If the economy is so important, even determinative, in this political campaign, why aren’t we seeing a serious effort to report the underlying facts? The failure to cover the facts is a fundamental failure. Doesn’t responsible journalism require the hard work of relating the conflicting political claims to the facts that either support or discredit them?  
The argument over the economy involves two conflicting, indeed incompatible, theories. On one side are those who hold that the economy is driven by consumer demand. The current recession is the result of consumers being unable or unwilling to spend enough to restore the economy to the level of full employment. Absent this demand, businesses are reluctant to expand output and prefer to hold on to their cash and wait for a better day. Given that we have hit the limits of monetary policy – interest rates virtually at zero – the only quick, or at least acceptably quick, way out is for the government to fill the gap – between what the economy is producing and what it needs to produce to raise employment – with purchases of goods and services. Of course this would require the government to borrow money, but for some time now the government has been able to borrow money for almost nothing. Interest rates at which the government can borrow are below the rate of inflation. Since the opportunities for the government to spend on things that will have a return well above the cost of borrowing – education, research, infrastructure investment – the case for stimulus would seem to be overwhelming.
On the other side are those who argue that we have tried a policy of stimulus and it has failed. In accepted Republican economic theory, it could not have worked. It is not a failure of demand that keeps the economy in recession, rather it is the failure of job-producing investment. Investment is constrained by the uncertainty created by three factors: first, the fear of tax increases, and second, fear of burdensome regulations. Third and most importantly, investment is discouraged by the growing national debt. The Republicans point to the $787 billion stimulus not only as a failure in producing jobs, but as major factor in the growth of the national debt. This debt discourages investment because it points to future tax increases and inflation. Their economic policy involves a dramatic reduction of government spending and tax reduction combined with further deregulation.
The temptation for the great many in the media is to report these opposing points of view and go no further. It is a safe and comfortable place to stop; it permits an easy reliance on the journalism of he-says, she-says. No need for the hard work of looking at the facts and analyzing their implications. If it is all just a matter of ideology; how can there be any right or wrong? 
Indeed this is where we are. The massive news-generating machine that deluges us with infinite details about the political process (at the moment dedicating vast amounts of ink and air time over Romney’s VP pick) clearly has no intention of giving us further enlightenment on the substance of the issue that might, by its own account, determine the next leader of the free world.   
In fairness, there are other factors besides inertia and timidity that counsel caution. Unfortunately the key factual question regarding the effect of the Obama Administration’s stimulus appears – at first glance – to be out of easy reach. It is essentially a question of what would have happened if what did happen didn’t. Did the Administration’s policy matter? What would have been the result without it?  
Flight speed depends on the wind
In one sense the answer is obvious. It defies all common sense to claim that the government can dump almost a trillion dollars into the economy without causing the additional employment of somebody. (Indeed, even the incessant Republican invocation of inflation fears depends on the idea that government spending will create too much demand and too many jobs. But, alas, when was consistency or even logic a political virtue? Worse, where is the pundit who understands the inconsistency?) But in the context of the Great Recession, the question remains did it “work”?
To answer this correctly in a technical sense it is necessary to understand what else was going on at the time the policy was implemented. To sort out what can and cannot be attributed to the stimulus, we must know the other things that were going on that would have countered the effect of the policy, or contributed to its effect. It is quite like determining how fast an airplane can fly. The economy boosted by the stimulus was like an airplane flying into a head wind. Judging the effectiveness of the stimulus is impossible without knowing the forces at play either working for or against it.
Economists have a number of ways to analyze this. A superb explanation was presented in a paper given by Christina Romer at Hamilton College last year. (November 7, 2011.) She refers to it as the problem of the omitted variable: could there have been other things going on screw up the study and give you misleading results? She uses as an example the question of how a tax cut will effect GDP. She finds that failure to take into account that economic output was tanking will give a misleading answer as to the effect of the tax cut. It could cause one to conclude that it had no effect when the effect was masked by the falling economy. (One might note that Romer captioned her paper “What Do We Know about the Effects of Fiscal Policy? Separating Evidence from Ideology.” )
Here it is important to recognize that the economics profession has been very busy. There has been a veritable tsunami of research done on the issue. The results are not comfortable for those on the Republican side. One can say a lot of things critical of the Obama stimulus – too small, too much in tax cuts, not enough in spending, too little in aid to state and local government, too late in taking effect – but the claim that it did not work at all is becoming indefensible. Studies coming out that way seem subject to having too many missing variables. Romer applied to the Recovery Act the metaphor of a badly injured patient who survived life-saving surgery and still does not feel well. Saying it didn’t work when he is still alive is simply wrong.
At this point any experienced journalist who has had the patience to get this far will cry “stop” and ask: Do you seriously want (even expect) ME to wade through vast piles of dense, badly written economic research? Worse, research which by all indications will force a conclusion that will most likely exasperate, even infuriate my editor and with certainty will expose me and my publication the screaming indignation of every right wing pundit, blogger and Fox news commentator in the nation? Not to mention the sneering insults of paid academics and the ignorant rants of Tea Party partisans? And, worst of all, cause the abandonment of my carefully crafted image of stubborn impartiality? All of which for no other purpose than producing a story that the average citizen will find insanely dull?
The answer is unequivocally and emphatically “yes.” 
What a journalist's work entails
It should be obvious that the analysis described above is not exactly difficult; it is hardly one step beyond common sense. Of course economists have a variety of ways to apply this approach – which factors to take into account and what weight to give them. These approaches can become genuinely technical, even mathematical, but that is no reason to retreat into an it’s-all-subjective mode. Like any scholarly endeavor, the persuasiveness of any such study depends, in the first instance, on the quality of the evidence and the logic of its application. Second, it depends on how well it stands up to the attacks by those who don’t buy its conclusions. Third, how well it is supported by others who have approached the issue from different perspectives? These are not judgments that a reasonably intelligent journalist should back away from, particularly since so much of the work is easily available. The debates within the economics profession on these issues have hardly been quiet academic ones; Internet blogs have been virtually ablaze with them. And the various disputants have not been shy about explaining their positions in quite clear English.  
Of course the underlying reason, or excuse, for not covering any tough economic issue is that it is perceived – perhaps correctly – as dull, crashingly dull. It is obvious that the prevailing perception of those in charge of the popular media is that the entertainment factor completely trumps information – even important information.  
Wallace, after his discussion of how dullness is used for public policy purposes, writes, “The really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why do we recoil from the dull?”  
His answer applies not just to cunning bureaucrats and politicians and to timid, even cowardly news organizations – but indeed to all of us. He suggests a terrifying notion: that we can’t face the dull because of our growing collective obsession with being entertained: 
“...surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s back seats, Walkmen, iPods, Blackberries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.” 
Are we all afraid of dullness because we are afraid of not being entertained? A fear that a moment unfilled by entertainment could force us to confront reality? One reviewer noted that for Wallace boredom “is the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid.  It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask. . . .”  
More and more the news that Americans are fed looks like entertainment. The difficult and complex aspects of issues are left out because they are incompatible with meeting the public’s entertainment needs – which unlike the needs for thoughtful reporting – are insatiable. Our political commentators can endlessly amuse us by treating political campaigns and elections as sports events – we get unending discussions about who's up and who's down. Absurdly irrelevant gaffes by politicians are treated as serious events and subjected to detailed analysis. We are given minute analyses of the current polls – how are the candidates doing with blue collar Armenian Catholics versus Latino Presbyterians versus Mormon lesbian polygamists. At the same time increasing amounts of ink and air time are consumed by sentimental “feel good” stories of no real consequence. 
At this point many journalists may dismiss my complaints by simply pointing out that they do not own the media. It is not their fault the public lacks the ability to follow a complicated argument, to grasp a set of facts that seem counterintuitive, or worse, or even be open to facts that appear to contradict deeply held beliefs. Anyone who would jump in front of the massive momentum of American pop culture would have to be nuts. Or very brave.
There is, of course, no simple solution to this dilemma. But it is worth looking at the way Wallace sees the conflicting problems of boredom and entertainment.
In the middle of The Pale King Wallace has a character, a university student, wander into the wrong classroom. He finds himself in an advanced class in tax accounting and is captivated by a charismatic instructor (a Jesuit) who at end of the class delivers an impassioned speech on the profession of accounting. He begins, “I wish to inform you that the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic.” He goes on: “[G]entlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism.”
He then contrasts this adult concept of heroism with that of the entertainment world:
“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climatic battle whose outcome resolves all – all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience....Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested....To retain care and scrupulosity about each detail from within the teeming wormball of data . . . .this is heroism....Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”


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