Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Newsroom: Counterpoints and Retrospective (8/25/13)

We got a pretty strong episode tonight. The singular focus on the overarching plot really tightened the narrative and we had some strong performances from a lot of the actors as well. There weren't any in-your-face arguments but there were enough throwaway lines that should be addressed.

1. On the bravery and brutality of soldiers

I'm glad that they didn't forget Jim Harper's background as an journalist embedded with an infantry unit in an active combat zone. The story didn't pass Harper's smell test and a big reason why was called out by Jerry Dantana: he didn't want to think that those in the military ("they were the best people I ever met") would be capable of gassing a civilian population. Dantana counters by saying that the same people in the US military would take grotesque big game bounty poses among the corpses of enemies killed in combat and then urinate on their corpses.

I need to bust out a familiar trope. Not all troops are like that. Soldiers (or airmen, or sailors, or Marines) are people just like the rest of us. And that runs the gamut from "the best people I ever met" to pond scum, with most stuck somewhere in the middle. All of them are focused on keeping their comrades alive and well and getting the job done, day in and day out. Sometimes that involves acts of utmost bravery and nobility. Sometimes that involves posing next to corpses of the slain and then urinating on them afterward.

The military (mostly) keeps a lid on this by not giving active duty combat troops decisions above their pay grade. Infantry getting shellacked by enemy artillery in a fox hole are not going to be trusted with the nuclear football. And a pilot of a Sikorsky UH-60 is not going to have Sarin at his disposal. With the recent rumors of chemical attacks in Syria, it's raised alarms in every Western capital. This is not something that can happen if Western armies would dare to use Sarin in an extraction mission.

2. Lies in service to a greater truth

The first source they got to come forward hid his traumatic brain injury from the journalists because he wanted to be taken seriously as a source on something important. The use of Sarin gas is undoubtedly something that the public needs to know. The head of ACN News, Charlie Skinner, likens it to boys lying about their age in order to enlist in the army so they could fight the Nazis.

Dantana gets caught doing the same thing. But his greater truth also happens to benefit him tremendously as the producer behind the segment. This is seen as vastly less noble than the Marine who became their first source on Genoa. Although the show burns both people for not playing by the rules, we have to realize that those who make the rules do so to preserve their own power.

Nobody ever became great by playing by the rules. You become great by subverting the rules. By changing them. By doing things that advantage you, even if it is in violation of something else. Great countries became great by engulfing formerly great countries. And the winners get to write history. The show portrays both characters who lied to be doing something anathema to "doing the news right", but if the story had been real, then it would have never mattered.

People take risks and sometimes they get burned. That is the takeaway I got from the last episode, although I'm pretty sure the show wanted to teach the audience a lesson on integrity.

3. Challenging the Great Man Theory

McAvoy gives the lawyers, and the audience, a story about Claudette Colvin, the progenitor of Rosa Parks in the Civil Rights Era. He argues that had Claudette Colvin had the same traits that made Rosa Parks a sympathetic figure in the fight for black equality, Rosa Parks never would have become Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. might have never become famous for his activism.

Sorkin is making the argument that timing is everything. And because of that, there is no such thing as a great man. The great men that we idolize in history were simply vehicles of convenience during times of great change and turbulence. And this, I think, is closer to the nature of history than the myths that we're fed from movies. The greatest figures in history have always stood on the shoulders of giant things. Whether those things are general discontent among the peasantry and middle class in pre-Revolutionary France or the financial backing of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, no man is an island and no man can accomplish anything great by himself.

This is the principle behind President Obama's exhortation that change comes from the people. And that's why politicians watch polls. Political capital exists at the margins around the twin pillars of public opinion and general inertia.

4. Without the New Deal, we would have never gotten out of the recession

I have always been sympathetic to arguments that FDR's policies actually lengthened the Great Depression. But at the same time, all people need to do on the other side is point to this chart:

And say "and all that recovery occurred under FDR" and then you can convince a ton of people that FDR did, in fact, save the American economy.

In my opinion, FDR was the first modern President of the United States. Although expansions of Federal power happened in fits and starts before him (Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson), what we know as the modern Federal government really began under FDR's administration. Naturally, his policies have become a flashpoint among economic historians and the politically inclined.

But what that chart shows is that real GDP actually recovered to above the pre-Depression peak in 1929 during 1937 (before the mini-recession from 37-38 dragged it briefly down again). And there's no "preparations for WWII got us there" argument to be had. Lend Lease, the decisive break against neutrality against the Axis Powers, occurred in 1941 and preparations for it began in earnest in 1938, 1 year after we gained back all the economic ground we lost between '29-'32.

But economies are resilient. Declines in output snap back regardless of what the government does. The main reason why is because a country's wealth base isn't eroded during an economic contraction. The factories, roads, technologies, and people that enabled a country to produce X amount of goods are still there during a recession. The only thing that is lacking is confidence and optimism. Time restores it, not new government policy. Because people tend to overreact to extraordinary circumstances, economies have experienced large boom and bust cycles. If you average it out, the trend is upward because of increases in productivity. Productivity increases are generally driven by phenomenon occurring within the private sector.

From a purely intuitive sense, I can't stand New Deal worship. It paints the President and the Federal government as the saviors of the economy. In relative terms, the Federal government under Hoover made up 12% of GDP compared to FDR's 15%. But output collapsed by a full third from its peak. Even under Keynesian models, it would be foolish to attribute the recovery from the Great Depression to actions taken by the Federal government.

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