Monday, August 20, 2012

The Newsroom: Counterpoints (8/19/12)

Oh boy, we've got some good ones this episode.Let's do it by the numbers:

1. Newsroom Argument - Balancing the Federal budget is completely different from balancing a household budget. Please stop equating the two.

I'll be the first to admit that there are many differences between the two. The government doesn't even keep track of its budget the same way it forces public companies to do. The scale is different. So are the means.

But the basic concept is still the same. The differences are at the margin (and, admittedly, they are substantial margins). If a household's expenses exceeds its income, there are three options: decrease the expenses (spending cuts), increase its income (increased tax revenue), or taking on debt to finance its expenses (deficit spending).

For the government, it's the exact same thing. Except the government can compel people within the country to pay higher taxes. It also has an ability to borrow an extremely large amount of money relative to its income at extremely low interest rates (currently, we have negative real interest rates on government debt), and it is absolutely (politically) impossible to cut spending.

For families, it's reversed. They don't have easy access to cheap credit, unless it's to finance an asset that can be easily seized in the event of default. They can't easily increase their income. But they can easily cut spending. If times are tight, little Timmy isn't gonna get that shiny new Xbox or mountain bike he's been wishing for. Nor will his parents take him out to eat as often.

But for the government, the only reason why it's impossible to cut spending is because we've turned our government into the spender of last resort. Because the government is so monumentally large, it's easy for people to shift more and more of society's risks to the government. For example, most catastrophic insurance businesses are ultimately backed by state assets. If the banks go under, the government will bail them out. If a person can't afford health care, the government will pay for it.

For better or worse, the government has assumed ultimate responsibility for society's ills. One can argue whether this is a good thing or not. A household budget is all about personal (and familial) responsibility. Maybe that's what Sorkin meant. But of course, a hot and bothered Sloan Sabbath wouldn't have been able to jam all of that into her angry little rant.

2. Newsroom Argument - The debt ceiling is an important issue because S&P will downgrade the government's credit rating due to Republican obstructionism.

Newsflash: S&P's downgrade didn't do jack shit. Yields on Treasury debt are the lowest they've been since the founding of the Republic. Negative real interest rates means that people are so concerned about capital preservation that they're willing to lend money at a small loss.

Imagine a bank willing to lend you 50,000 dollars today in exchange for paying 59,765 dollars in the future. Of course, with inflation, 10 years from now, 59,765 dollars will be worth approximately 49,027 dollars today. Somehow, that doesn't exactly scream "credit downgrade" to me.

3. Newsroom Argument - The debate formats are a joke and the candidates don't get called out on their bullshit by the moderators.

I actually agree with this completely. But they don't really explain why it's such a joke. The answer is simple: politics is about convincing idiots to vote for you. And you don't need a psychologist to tell you that outrageous, incendiary things grab a person's attention more than normal, reasonable things.

People don't care about statistics. They care about anecdotes. That's why plenty of politicians run on biography. And it's why personal life events can bring down a politician. Intellectually, everybody knows that sexual promiscuity has near-zero correlation to how well a person can perform at their day job. But it'll still bring down a politician.

Because we don't think of politicians as people who control the levers of power in government (the most powerful single organization within a country). We think of them as people who we would want to have a beer with. Who would smile and nod and offer words of encouragement to us if we're down. Who cheer and congratulate you when you do well. Even when all the evidence points to the fact that a politician sees people as nothing more than voters and donors.

That's why we have a person like Mitt Romney, who everybody will admit is a smart, capable guy, who will adopt and abandon positions at will to please voters. He wants to be everything to everybody, just like every other politician. The fact that it's so obvious to most people just means he's a bad politician. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be a bad President. But people don't focus on that. They want "their guy" in office.

The GOP primary campaigns were fun to follow because it revealed how little each candidate (with the exception of Rick Santorum, but I'll deal with that later) thought of the primary voters.

Gingrich's strategy was to bash the media and deliver red meat to the base in the form of snappy, sound bitable zingers. He lived and died by the debates. Romney's strategy was to remind everybody else that his opponents were completely unelectable, undisciplined, unintelligent, and generally unpleasant. He lived and died by carpet bombing his opponents with negative attack ads. Michele Bachmann's strategy was to preach to the Tea Party choir in the most inflammatory and extreme method possible. She lived and died by her own air-headedness. Rick Perry's strategy was to simply show up since he had all of the things that the Republican electorate wanted in a candidate, but he died during the debates simply because he didn't think he needed to prepare.

The one exception was Rick Santorum. He came off as the most genuine person there. I didn't really detect any real hidden agenda when it came to his remarks and campaign activities. He was either the best actor alive, or he really believed in most everything that he said. I'm inclined to believe it the latter.

But the point remains. Most of the politicians (and just about every successful one) got to where they are by deceiving the electorate. They will never agree to a debate format in which they will actually get called out on their rhetoric. Because rhetoric isn't about swaying undecided voters with reasoned argument and facts. It's about rallying the base to get them more pumped about voting than the opponent's base.

4. Newsroom Argument - Casey Anthony is ridiculous and should not be news.

Did anybody else think it was completely ridiculous how Maggie's roommate also happened to go to the same high school as Casey Anthony? This is the second time that the show has seriously stretched the boundaries of credibility, (the first being when Jim had a roommate who became a BP executive at the same time while his sister just happened to be a Halliburton executive) just in personal relationships alone.

Hey, Aaron Sorkin, just because you acknowledged on screen that there is essentially zero chance of this being able to happen doesn't let you off the hook. It just makes your writing lazy and implausible.

5. Okay, this is coming off the rails a bit. But I just wanted to say that I will bet anything that "Help Me, Rhonda" is Aaron Sorkin's way of saying he reads Slate's "Dear Prudence" column quite frequently.*

* Full disclosure: I don't. But I do read Slate. And I always notice their use of over-the-top topic titles to try and lure in viewers to her decidedly mediocre advice column.

1 comment:

  1. With regards to #4, it's actually, in my mind, the third time the show has "seriously stretched the boundaries of credibility". The second time was Sloan being fluent in Japanese, (kinda believable, but a convenient one) and knowing the guy in Japan that just happens to be the spokesman about the reactor mess.