Monday, July 16, 2012

Drought 2012: How The Great Recession is becoming more and more like The Great Depression

Images of The Great Depression most frequently include two focal points: (1) the unemployed, either selling apples or standing in line for food and (2) the Dust Bowl.

Because we now have the so-called "safety net", we haven't seen pictures of  anyone selling apples, though pictures of people standing in line for unemployment or food stamps were in newspapers in 2008 and 2009.

Now the other shoe has dropped.

If you didn't read the stories or hear the subject discussed on TV news, half of the United States, including areas in the 1930's Dust Bowl, officially has been or likely will be declared a drought disaster area. You can read the Department of Agriculture news release or do a Google News Search on "drought disaster" to bring yourself up-to-date. But here's the map:


When people start running for the Presidency, the candidates and the public think they know what issues are important. Of course, that is not true. George Bush and Al Gore did not run on how to fight terrorism in 2000. When Barack Obama decided to throw his hat into the primary ring against Hillary Clinton, the idea of an economic crash was not on the voters minds.

The current hot button issue is not this year's drought conditions even though one agricultural economist called it a "$50 billion event for the economy as it blends into everything over the next four quarters", with the important element of the "event" being the amount of extra money it will take for Americans to buy food combined with government insurance program payouts to farmers which will come from the borrowing.

But what could potentially be a major problem for either President Obama or Mitt Romney would be the continuation of this drought, which in many areas is already a multi-year drought. If the hot dry weather continues into next year, the potential economic impacts will be significant. Feed corn and hay will become scarce and prices will skyrocket forcing up the price of meat. Dairy farms and poultry producers will be confronted with a scarcity of feed.

Of course, in theory we could "outsource" by importing, but Argentina, among other alternative sources, is being slammed by drought also.

Climate change anyone? Does anyone running for President relate this to a potentially immediate worsening of the economic crisis?

And has anyone great and wise in California's Capitol wondered how this might affect The Great California Slump other than having a shortage of snow up at Tahoe next Winter?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Aaron Sorkin's Great Expectations: A news media that could never live up to our highest standards

I love Aaron Sorkin's new drama on HBO "The Newsroom."

But I am warning my conservative friends to not get so upset by Aaron Sorkin's opinions that they end up not watching the show. Truthfully, like so many "progressives" Sorkin is a conservative in the sense that he defends a fictional past as the time when American's were better, in this case because the press was so much better.

Sorkin's views were clearly stated at the beginning of the pilot which you can read here where Sorkin explains how to write effectively. While I got all teary-eyed because it was effective writing, this is Sorkin's fantasy. As with all fantasies it's a view based on fiction and even while I was taken in by the emotion I knew rationally that the monologue was like all propaganda, using some elements of fact mixed with fiction to persuade the listener to believe the fantasy.

History is a continuous line of cause and effect. So it's pretty easy to pick the monologue apart. First Sorkin sprinkles in some facts:
We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
Then he adds the argumentative fiction:
We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy.
Finally, he concludes with a statement about some newsmen who flourished in the period from 1948-72:
And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.
The problem is statistically and anecdotally the facts don't support this view of history.

Sure, we built a huge economy doing the many things he lists. But we beat our collective chests continuously from 1945 on. And we created many of our current problems with the best of selfish intentions even though the problems were foreseeable and, therefore, avoidable if only we had been informed by the great men of Sorkin's mythical newsrooms, newsmen who were revered.

While inventing many great things after the WWII, we built ourselves hundreds of thousands of suburban homes in thousands of Levittown's across the nation by leveraging government credit through the FHA and VA programs. And by using government debt we built streets and highways to commute to work in obviously fuel wasting, polluting automobiles we purchased using private debt. And we beat our chests about these accomplishments and learned to feel good about being in debt.

Beginning in the 1960's, we stopped putting our money where our mouths were when the Kennedy Administration began reducing the marginal tax rate. And the Johnson Administration invented the let's-don't-sacrifice-anything-collectively "Guns and Butter" economy, not George W. Bush. And so we felt even better about being more in debt.

What Sorkin doesn't say is that me and my generation and he and his generation created a mess for our grandchildren by "living off the fat of the land" partly because we, in fact, weren't informed.

In his second episode, Sorkin uses the Arizona immigration law to emphasize how a really good news show might deal with the subject. While the folks in the newsroom screwed up, if they had succeeded the implication was we would have been a much better informed America. But would we have?

Let's look at a longer view of American history and Mexico, which is ignored in the whole somewhat-silly-picture of the Arizona immigration law Sorkin presented.

Mexicans aren't a people in some country across an ocean like Italians or Koreans. While we want to define this as a legal issue about immigration, in fact it is a traditional human population "migration" pattern across some invisible lines on the ground, creating a controversy that based in part on the difference between these two historical maps:





It is a controversy that stems from the Mexican-American War about which Wikipedia notes in phrasing reminiscent of discussions over many of our much more recent wars:
American territorial expansion to the Pacific coast had been the goal of President James K. Polk, the leader of the Democratic Party. However, the war was highly controversial in the U.S., with the Whig Party and anti-slavery elements strongly opposed. Heavy American casualties and high monetary cost were also criticized. The political aftermath of the war raised the slavery issue in the U.S., leading to intense debates that pointed to civil war; the Compromise of 1850 provided a brief respite.
When you take a long view of history, it's not surprising that Arizonan's 160 years after the Mexican-American War find themselves in the middle of a controversy. It's one a historian could easily provide comparable scenarios in Europe and Asia dating back thousands of years.

While "progressives" and "conservatives" argue about a law in Arizona, over periods of decades and centuries people will migrate to wherever they can find a better life, whether its towards access to more food and other "stuff" or away from civil wars (such as the one going on in Mexico today). And most assuredly they will do so when it can be done "on foot."

I'm emotionally susceptible to Sorkin's monologues. Sorkin's fantasy - about an America being informed by a wise and knowledgeable free press so we can somehow make better decisions - is my fantasy.

But unlike Sorkin, I would assert we've not had that in my lifetime. In my opinion, one of the worst failures of the American press occurred between 1945-55.

Walter Cronkite, one of those "great men who were revered" was a journalist I greatly respected. But, I know that the time for Cronkite to take a hard look at American policy on Vietnam was in 1945, not in 1968, - when Cronkite belatedly went out to take a look, changed his view on the Vietnam War, and then told us about it .

It's always the history that we don't know that causes us problems.

Consider the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Most Americans still don't know that from 1911-13, he lived in the United States.

Most Americans still don't know that following World War I, under the name Nguyễn Ái Quốc he petitioned for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people in French Indochina to the Western powers at the Versailles peace talks, but was ignored. Citing the language and the spirit of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Quốc petitioned U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to help remove the French from Vietnam and replace them with a new, nationalist government. It is said that his failure further radicalized Nguyễn, while also making him a national hero of the anti-colonial movement at home in Vietnam.

Following the fall of the Japanese-controlled Empire of Vietnam in August 1945, the Viet Minh occupied Hanoi and proclaimed a provisional government, which asserted national independence on September 2, 1945. This could happen because America's "Greatest Generation" fought a war in France so people of all nations could determine their own future ... at least that's what we were told.

But the Provisional French Republic sent the French Far East Expeditionary Corps – originally created to fight the Japanese occupation forces – to restore French colonial rule.

This could have been prevented by the United States at the time. But there was no Murrow or Cronkite telling us about it. They were focused on Europe. And they simply did not know that their ignorance could end up in the death of thousands of young Americans.

After all the lofty language about self-determination that came out of our collective mouths after WWII, did our failure to stop the French in the aftermath of WWII make this Vietnamese national hero more than jaded and angry? Could an informed press told us about it? Might he not have turned to the Soviet Union for support if we actually did support the idea that people of all nations could determine their own future?

We'll never really know because Aaron Sorkin's heroic news team failed to inform us at a critical moment.

Perhaps this is true because while at times individual reporters and photographers can be heroic, but otherwise we expect too much of the press and too little of ourselves when it comes to being informed.

And that's the way it is in my humble opinion, July 3, 2012.

The Newsroom: Episode 2 "News Night 2.0"

Let's begin with a look at real life. Back in August 2010 CNN’s DC bureau chief David Bohrman and CNN political director Sam Feist produced the following memo:
From David Bohrman and Sam Feist:

We are thrilled to announce that today, Patricia DiCarlo becomes the Executive Producer of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. In her three years at CNN, Patricia has demonstrated that not only is she an outstanding journalist, she has also emerged as an important leader at CNN.

Patricia’s 15 years in broadcast journalism have spanned important producing positions from WFLA and WTVT in Tampa all the way to the Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago. Under the leadership of CNN’s own Katherine Green, Patricia ran one of the largest newsrooms in Washington, DC as Executive Producer at WTTG-TV. Everyone who has worked with Patricia DiCarlo will agree that she is tenacious, full of ideas, full of energy, and a virtual force of nature. The energy and enthusiasm Patricia brings to everything she does will be a perfect fit as she takes the helm of the Sitroom. And we couldn’t be more pleased to have found our new executive producer within our own ranks.

Please join us in congratulating Patricia, Wolf, and the whole Situation Room team.

David and Sam
What bugs me about this memo is that sentence "Patricia’s 15 years in broadcast journalism have spanned important producing positions from WFLA and WTVT in Tampa all the way to the Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago." So the "Oprah Winfrey Show" is considered "journalism"???

Watching episode 2 Sunday evening I realized that "The Newsroom" accurately reflects the reality of 21st Century American television news which is worse than the worst possible nightmare scenarios imagined by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The meaning of "journalism" as they knew it is dead.

As I watched the first 33 seconds of the opening credits/intro sequence of "The Newsroom" last night...


...I realized that the show reflects a nostalgic Aaron Sorkin writing a fantasy where the male characters are simultaneously bigger than life and run things, like in the 1950's.

Other than the men being "bigger than life", is it a fantasy? The cable news channel news-prime-time (6-7 pm) anchors are CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Fox's Shepard Smith, MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

Last night's episode is taking hits among reviewers because of its portrayal of women. Hey, folks, let's back up a notch. This is Sorkin's fantasy, we've only seen two episodes, and over at CNN the male honchos see "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as journalism in the context of a woman producer's experience, even though she stayed there only 1 year and 1 month before returning to real news.

I'm not so sure Sorkin is that far off.

As seen by Sorkin, there are three critical sources of philosophical conflict in early 21st Century television news. Two were presented in this episode by the character Mackenzie MacHale (well-portrayed by Emily Mortimer) as keys to the main story arc of the series:

In an argument with News Night's anchor Will McAvoy she states the first element of Sorkin's belief's about what the television news should be:
MacHale: "We don't do good television we do the news."
The second is an exchange between MacHale and the other members of the newsroom, mostly younger people who grew up with the current news style. In the exchange we hear the second element of Sorkin's belief's about television news, this time about bias:
MacHale: "The media's biased towards success and the media's biased towards fairness.

Maggie Jordan: "How can you be biased towards fairness?"

MacHale: "There aren't two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one."

In response to the obvious skepticism of the younger staff, McAvoy elaborates: "Bias towards fairness means that if the entire Republican Congressional Caucus were to walk into the House and propose a resolution stating that the Earth was flat, the Times would lead with Democracts and Republicans can't agree on shape of Earth."
The third critical philosophical conflict is the issue of ratings and popularity versus integrity of content and informing the viewer.

Sorkin seems to be framing this last conflict as an economic issue, which it is. But he isn't clearly presenting the reality of cable news networks. If no one watches, you aren't informing anyone. And, if your "integrity" is so great you don't tend to reflect a political ideology, no one will watch because cable news is mostly background noise, except for the believers who "pay the bills" in the cable news competition.

McAvoy's speech in the first episode is about what's wrong with Americans - not what's wrong with America. In it he said about the past: "And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed."

In this episode Sorkin is saying in his fantasy is that we cannot become an informed people if all we're looking for is entertainment. But what several characters in the story are saying is what the larger audience is looking for in television news is entertainment.

Which brings us to this show which is supposed to be entertainment.

Other than the ideologues who hate Sorkin for his political views, the show is getting the most criticism for what the first two episodes have not been. They have not been the representation of the well-written soap opera. Sorkin has not focused on creating believable characters.

What's most worrisome about this is the fact that Sorkin is writing this series without a "writers room" where others can expand his horizon regarding people, particularly women at the beginning of the 21st Century. This means that while the show is powerful with solid "production values" it is similar to "Mad Men" in that it is primarily the sole creation of one fifty-ish man. The female characters are not accurately represented according to their female contemporaries.

In "The Newsroom" the focus on the two women important to the story so far has been painted with a fog about relationships with the men they work with and even men they dated in college. That probably was a bad idea, at least for the first few episodes.

But, it's classic Sorkin. There were people who did not watch "West Wing" because of the sometimes frenetic verbal pace.

With that said, in terms of story arc, this episode combined with the first episode demonstrated that the new "retro" approach to the news sometimes will work and sometimes will fail. And it can be because of the unexpected. Last episode, one staffer had a solid connection to the story. This week the other staffer had a connection that should have been avoided.

These two episodes were "the pilot." The problem is if you missed some of the chatter you may have missed something you need to know. Or not.

I'm hoping we're going to get more quiet character interaction. It happened a lot in "West Wing." In an interview with Jane Fonda we learn that:

...[Jane] Fonda plays the recurring role of Leona Lansing, the CEO of the fictional network parent company Atlantic World Media that is, as Fonda explains, somewhere in between Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.

In the interview Fonda explains:

...Aaron says that it's mostly about the relationships -- and they are fascinating relationships -- about the characters that are in the newsroom. With Emily Mortimer and... well, you know who's in it. It's very interesting. The newsroom, to me -- and I play the head of the whole parent company -- the newsroom is less than three percent of my bottom line. But, because it's the newsroom, it can create a lot of trouble for me. So, I can rattle a lot of cages. But, my dilemma in this first season is what's happening because of what happens to Jeff Daniels in the course of the series. I don't feel like I'm in a position to say, you know, what the core of the story is....

So I have great hopes that the story will develop well.