Sunday, July 25, 2010

There's Nothing Wrong With a Good Rant....

And Applebaum offers up a good entry in the "Americans are stupid" category, the type of rant that Americans love to hate, or hate to love, or... maybe it's a little bit of both. But I think that it's reasonable to expect that a rant that is published in a major newspaper be factually accurate.

Applebaum's argument could easily be paraphrased as, "If like me, you spend a lot of time living in Europe, you'll come to see Americans as selfish and stupid." With due respect to Applebaum's attempt to suggest that Europeans are less selfish and more enlightened, or expect less from their government, she does a poor job making her case. I think it's more reasonable to say that Americans are people, and thus are subject to being selfish, misled by demagoguery, and at times irrational. Look at one culture, look at 'em all - people are people.

Beyond that, Applebaum seems eager to shift the responsibility for a mass response to demagoguery onto the people. Not onto the "Mama Grizzlies" who actively and dishonestly attempt to whip up a frenzy of self-contradictory anti-government sentiment - "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." Paul Krugman addressed the issue in a manner that, although not original, recognizes where the responsibility belongs:
There’s no point berating voters for their ignorance: people have bills to pay and children to raise, and most don’t spend their free time studying fact sheets. Instead, they react to what they see in their own lives and the lives of people they know.
Applebaum faults the American people for listening to the nation's political opinion leaders and acting as if the analysis that's presented to them is accurate. It doesn't seem to occur to her that she and her peers have a role in the equation, and that when seeking out the roots of the problem she would benefit from consulting a mirror.

But the biggest problem is that her editorial is replete with errors of fact and logic....
  • "Americans -- with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs -- demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world" - Applebaum should take note that while the U.S. relies heavily on litigation to resolve its disputes, Europe relies much more heavily on regulation. Yes, in the U.S. you might get a class action suit over a product that fails five minutes out of warranty (not that it would be a very strong suit), but in Europe you're more apt to have the government tell the company that produced the product that, despite the duration of its warranty, consumers had a right to expect greater durability so they must fix or replace the item. We could argue about which approach is better, but it's dishonest to pretend that Europeans merely accept the status quo while Americans go off to court.

    It's also fair to ask, if we're accused of having a "lawsuit culture", how many Americans actually file a tort lawsuit during their lifetimes? Most people seem to get through life without suing somebody else - so, other than media spin, what makes that a "lawsuit culture"?

    It's also reasonable to ask, if the U.S. is deemed to be "addicted" to government spending, what spending programs that directly benefit individuals do we have in the United States that are absent from typical European nations, and for those with counterparts how do benefits and expenditures compare? I'm having a difficult time thinking of government sponsored social programs where, on the whole, Europe lags behind the U.S.

  • "They don't simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong." - Would people respond to this differently if Applebaum said "you" instead of "they"? And if we are talking about the society and not individuals, how is this actually different from Europe? What risks do Americans deem unacceptable that Europeans shrug off as part of life?

  • "And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too." - The only people who got serious financial help due to the collapse of the housing market were bankers. Other than the failed HAMP program, ordinary homeowners were told to suck it up. So what is Applebaum talking about?

  • "When, through a series of flukes, a crazy person smuggled explosives onto a plane last Christmas, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible" - I remember things a bit differently. It seemed to me that it was the right-wing media that howled for blood, and whined that President Obama didn't respond quickly enough, or (like Bush did with the shoe bomber) dared to allow the suspect to be Mirandized and treated like a criminal rather than being whisked away to a black hole where he could be held indefinitely as an "enemy combatant". Sure, a lot of people responded to that demagoguery. But why is Applebaum faulting the people and not the demagogues?

  • "When, because of bad luck and planning mistakes, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible again." - Actually, wasn't it the same story over again? President Obama responded as if the matter were appropriately delegated to BP and a variety of government agencies, the media howled that he wasn't taking things seriously enough until he finally spoke on the subject, the media then howled that he didn't show enough emotion, and when he devoted more time to the matter after-the-fact the media howled that he was being distracted from his other duties? Again, even if people bought into the media's spin and right-wing demagoguery, how is that their fault?

    For that matter, where can I find Applebaum's sane voice, debunking the rhetoric and challenging her peers to report the actual story rather than trying to transform it into yet another hypervenitlation about Obama.

  • "Nevertheless, these kinds of events set off a chain reaction: A government program is created, experts are hired, new machines are ordered for the airports or new monitors sent beneath the ocean. This is how we got the Kafkaesque security network that an extraordinary Post investigation this week calls, quite conservatively, 'A hidden world, growing beyond control.'" - Yes, it's good of the media to occasionally point out to us that the consequence of having an irresponsible media is that some people gain unrealistic expectations of what the government can and should do. But it's fair to observe that there's no shortage of fancy, new bomb detection equipment in European airports, and that European countries have their fair share of "hidden world" surveillance programs. Has Applebaum been to London lately? Without ending up on police-operated CCTV?

  • "It's true that the French want to retire early, and that the British think health care should be free, but when things -- any old things -- go wrong, Americans also write to their congressional representatives and their commander in chief, demanding action. And precisely because this is a democracy, Congress and the president respond, pass a law, build a building." - I'm not sure that there's a country in the world in which people don't want to retire early, including this one. (And on that subject, is Applebaum imagining that the French want to retire early based upon private savings?) It's also not my impression that the British want healthcare to be "free" - they have the notion that they pay for the National Health Service (NHS) through their taxes, if you can imagine, not that it's "free".

    But the notion that Americans need only write to a Member of Congress and, poof, instant legislation results? Beyond silly. First, last I checked, Europeans at times will write to their elected representatives. No difference there. Second, if it's that easy, why are we waiting for legislation on so many issues that the people deem important? Why wasn't a "public option", favored by a majority of Americans, part of healthcare reform? Why did we launch a war in Iraq after public opinion had shifted, and a small majority opposed the invasion? Where can I find an actual manifestation of the fealty Applebaum imagines?

  • "To put it bluntly, middle-class Americans of the right, left and center have come to expect a level of personal financial security that -- despite the stereotypes -- most people around the world would never demand from their governments." - So, pray tell, what are the benefits demanded and received by Americans that aren't either wanted or needed by "most people around the world"? Universal healthcare? Some form of government-sponsored retirement benefit? Seriously.

  • "The majority of Americans are wary of global trade, don't trust free markets and also think that "the benefits from . . . Social Security or Medicare are worth the costs of those programs." And when the sample is restricted to people who support the Tea Party movement? The share is still 62 percent." - So Americans are wary of free trade... as opposed to, say, France, in which the typical citizen fully embraces free trade, and calls for the abolition of all tariffs and other barriers to international trade? Americans trust "free markets" less than Europeans?

    As for Social Security and Medicare, how is it incorrect to believe that those programs are worth what they cost? And in what European nation can I find the opposite - the majority of the people saying that their national health insurance programs and retirement benefits aren't worth what they cost?

    Applebaum seems to be confusing the views of the aristocratic circles of Europe, in which she socializes, with the views of the masses - but that, also, is no different here. You'll find the greatest opposition to national health insurance and Social Security among the people who need it the least.

  • "Yet it is Social Security, Medicare and the ever-expanding list of earmarks -- federal grants -- that are going to sink the American budget in the next few decades, not President Obama's health-care reform (though that won't help)." - "Can we afford to pay for this", of course, is a different question than "Is this worth what it costs". For all I know, a Lamborghini is worth every penny its owners pay for it, and it's probably a lot of fun to have one; it's still not in my budget.

    Yes, over the long-haul, we need to find ways to improve the financial viability of Medicare and Social Security, although it's dishonest or at best sloppy of Applebaum to suggest that they threaten imminent bankruptcy. In relation to the healthcare reform bill it's flat-out wrong to suggest that "it won't help", because it is both projected to lower government spending and introduces tools and measures that are intended to help the government identify and act upon areas of potential savings. Could it do more? Sure. no small part to demagogues and a lazy media, screeching about "death panels" caused legislators to back away from anything that might be construed or misconstrued as rationing or limiting access to health care.

    Earmarks, of course, have minimal impact on the deficit - they direct how money, already allocated, is to be spent.

  • "Yet in Washington, these expenditures are known as 'third rails': If you touch them, you're dead." - As I recall, John McCain gained significant public support for his war on earmarks. Third rail? Try finding a politician willing to defend earmarks, particularly as they've been used over the past decade.

    As for Social Security and Medicare, they're not "third rail" issues because you can't get a majority of Americans to agree with the need for reform, or the need to establish long-term viability. They aren't touched because politicians fear that cuts will incur the wrath of a small but consistent voting bloc - the elderly - and get voted out of office, and that a fix via a tax increase will bring about anger from groups that are wealthy and influential. Both programs have been tweaked and modified over the years without the sky falling. If the Republican Party would back away from its demagoguery, I think that a similar fix could be implemented within months.

  • "President George W. Bush talked a little about making individuals more responsible for their retirement, and then he gave up. The 'privatization' of Social Security, as it was sneeringly described, was too unpopular, particularly among his supporters." - And again the real problem appears to be that Applebaum is channeling the concerns of her aristocratic peers. The reason that President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security was called "privatization" was... because it was privatization - taking money from Social Security and putting it into private accounts. At first, G.W. and his fellow "reformers" had no apparent problem describing his plan as privatization. When they couldn't sell their idea under that honest label they did attempt to sell the same thing under a different brand. Given how the stock market has performed since G.W.'s plan tanked, even before considering the fees that private money managers would have taken to manage those private accounts, it's difficult to see how opponents of G.W'.s proposals were wrong.

  • "Look around the world, and we don't look as exceptional as we think. Chileans are willing to save for their own retirement." - Yes, look around the world - but not at Europe. No, don't look around the word - look only at Chile. And while you're at it, pretend that U.S. citizens don't save for their retirement through 401k, 403b, IRA, 457b, and similar private accounts. As for Chile, Applebaum's talking point has passed it's expiration date.

  • "Most Europeans are reconciled to the idea that not everybody, at any age and in any condition, is entitled to the most expensive medical technology." - The same, of course, is tru of most Americans. The issue is that when it's you or your loved one who needs that treatment, you want them to get it. I somehow doubt that's any less true in Europe than it is here.

  • "A secretary of state or defense traveling with dozens of cars and armed security guards would seem absurd in many countries" - Well, yes, but their Secretaries of State aren't the credible targets of kidnapping and assassination attempts. Ours is.

  • " would the notion that the government provides a tax break if you buy a house" - Different nations offer different subsidies, depending upon what they value. The U.S. emphasizes home ownership, and thus subsidizes home ownership. But you know what home ownership does? It ties people to a location and a mortgage, making them less able to move to change jobs and more dependent upon a steady flow of income - and is associated with lower levels of labor organization and strikes. So, Anne, is the problem that the U.S. too heavily subsidizes housing, or is the problem that too many Europeans rent?

  • "...or that schools should close if there is ice on the roads." - Pray tell, what nations don't have "snow days" when they have reason to be concerned that the roads will be dangerous? What nations in which the state offers school busing don't have snow days? I suspect that the correct answers are "none" and "none".

  • "Yet we not only demand ludicrous levels of personal and political safety, we also rant and rave against the vast bureaucracies we have created -- democratically, constitutionally, openly -- to deliver it." - Ah, if only we lived in Europe, where everybody loves the government, nobody complains of government waste or inefficiency, nobody expects the government to address society problems, nobody strikes, and nobody protests.

Applebaum's editorial doesn't really say anything of note, and thus appears to have passed with little critical attention. But given that most people who read a newspaper aren't aware that op/ed writers aren't fact-checked, it perhaps highlights a need to better educate the public that what they read in the paper may be something the author just made up. After all, a lot of Applebaum's concerns are based upon exactly that - the people believing stuff that politicians and pundits made up.

Update: E.J. Dionne gets it right:
Yet [in jumping the gun in the Sherrod case] the Obama team was reacting to a reality: the bludgeoning of mainstream journalism into looking timorously over its right shoulder and believing that "balance" demands taking seriously whatever sludge the far right is pumping into the political waters.

This goes way back. Al Gore never actually said he "invented the Internet," but you could be forgiven for not knowing this because the mainstream media kept reporting he had.

There were no "death panels" in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow "the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.

The traditional media are so petrified of being called "liberal" that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors. Mainstream journalists regularly criticize themselves for not jumping fast enough or high enough when the Fox crowd demands coverage of one of their attack lines.

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