2008 - %3, October

A Media Fable

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 3:11 PM EDT

A MEDIA FABLE....Want to hear a story about the power of the media to shape public narratives? I know, I know, they're a dime a dozen. But this one from Britain is so spectacular that it's worth hearing about.

Here's what happened. Two weeks ago, an "edgy" comedian on BBC Radio 2 named Russell Brand decided to play a phone prank. Brand had once had a relationship with Georgina Baillie, the 23-year-old granddaughter of Andrew Sachs, the actor who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers, so he and his partner Jonathan Ross decided to give Sachs a call. They got Sachs' answering machine, and started off with this:

Brand: Look Andrew Sachs I have got respect for you and your lineage and your progeny, never let that be questioned.

Ross: Don't hint ...

Brand: I weren't hinting! Why did that come across as a hint?

Ross: Because you know what you did ...

Brand: That wasn't a hint ...

Ross: He fucked your granddaughter!

[laughter in the studio]

Brand: That's his answerphone!

Ross: I'm sorry ... I apologise Andrew, I apologise, I can't help it, you were talking about it and it was in my head, I apologise.

Half a million people were listening to this. The reaction was....nothing. Literally. Apparently there were a grand total of two complaints after the show aired.

In other words, the public had spoken, and they couldn't have cared less. So what happened next? Answer: a Mail on Sunday reporter alerted Sachs' agent, who asked for an apology from Brand and got it a week after the initial broadcast. Still, no one cared. The next day, though, the Mail splashed Brand all over its front page and has been giving him front page treatment ever since. It's sort of like the Fox News 24/7 loop whenever they get their hands on something useful to rile up the rubes.

So: left to their own opinions, no one cared about this. It's not as if it was a secret only brought to light after deep investigative reporting, after all. Even Sachs doesn't seem to have cared much to begin with (he apparently "reluctantly" approved broadcasting the tape before it aired). But after the Mail got its claws into the story, it became a national crisis. Brand has since been forced to quit the show, Ross is under fire to leave too, and the BBC is said to be near collapse over the episode. Earlier this week reporters descended on Italy to find the BBC's director-general, who was on vacation, and on Tuesday both the prime minister Gordon Brown and conservative leader David Cameron weighed in. The director-general quickly cut his vacation short and as I write this is apparently holding emergency meetings of the kind last seen in Churchill's bunker during World War II.

That's the power of the media for you. On October 18th two people complained. For a week after that nobody said a word. Today, one week and five front pages later, the entire country is in the middle of a firestorm. Remarkable, no?

UPDATE: Ezra has another good one here. It's more of a garden variety media fuckup, but still worth a quick read.

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Factchecking 43's Fuzzy Math

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 2:17 PM EDT

George Bush has been giving us fuzzy math for eight long years, from faulty punch-card ballots, to misunderestimates on everything from Medicare costs to the Iraq War bill. Now, here's one more error that must be fixed for history's sake: the presidential tally.

Bush's nickname for Clinton—he has them for most everyone—is 42, a reference to his standing as the 42nd president of the United States, and his dad, George Sr., Bush calls 41. That makes him 43, and our next president 44. Straightforward enough math, simple addition, right? Yeah, but he still has it wrong, and so does everyone else who plays along. Here's why:

China and the IMF

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 2:10 PM EDT

CHINA AND THE IMF....The IMF, and western governments in general, have been remarkably eager to extend financial help to emerging economies as the global financial crisis has unfolded. Brad Setser suggests that this might be because they feared that China would step in and make them obsolete:

I wonder if the possibility that institutions like the IMF could be bypassed if they didn't respond more quickly and creatively than in the past didn't help to spur the recent set of policy changes. Those in the IMF's Executive Board who normally would object to unconditional lending didn't block the new short-term lending facility — perhaps at least in part because of recognition that the IMF potentially isn't the only game in town (or in the world).

This comes via Dan Drezner, who suggests a flip side: despite their vast reserves of dollar holdings, Russia and China aren't really stepping up to the plate:

For all their aspirations to great power status, both countries lack the policy expertise necessary to take on greater leadership roles. This leads to profound risk aversion, which leads to inaction. On the flip side, the U.S. is accustomed to talking to the countries in crisis, which both provides it with more information and allows Washington to act more quickly.

As long as we're taking guesses here, here's one of my own. Normally, IMF help tends to be a little slow in coming because they insist on onerous terms that are political death for the leaders of the target countries. The IMF usually doesn't budge much, however, because it feels like it needs to incentivize good behavior. If its terms were lax, countries would all feel free to follow profligate economic policies and then head over to Uncle IMF whenever they got a little behind. They want their terms to be onerous, and the upshot is that it takes a while before a country is in bad enough shape to agree to an IMF rescue.

But two things are different this time. First, the crisis has hit very, very fast. It's not taking a year or two for countries to figure out that bankruptcy is unavoidable, it's taking a month or two. Second, this isn't a case of a single country that made some bad choices. It's plainly a global conflagration, and furthermore, one that was primarily stoked by the United States, not by emerging economies doing stupid things. Everyone was doing stupid things, and the entire world is heading down the toilet, which means that the IMF's usual onerous terms just aren't necessary. The moral hazard issue isn't a big one.

So: given the global nature of the crisis, the IMF is willing to offer more generous terms than usual for its aid. And given the speed and depth of the crisis, failing countries are facing reality faster than usual. Result: more and faster IMF/western aid than usual.

And yes, Russia has its own problems and China has never played this game before. They'll probably dip their toes in the water eventually this time, and then next time feel a little more confident in taking a more active role. In the meantime, whatever the reason, it's heartening that the IMF is facing reality and changing their policies this time around. This crisis really is different.

R.I.P. Tax Revolt?

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 1:41 PM EDT

R.I.P. TAX REVOLT?....It's been increasingly chic in liberal circles over the past year or so to declare the death of the tax revolt. Born in California in 1978, raised to adulthood by Ronald Reagan, given a second wind by George Bush, and now, finally, ready to retire from public life. For example, here was Mark Schmitt early last year:

The truth is that we are heading down a path toward fiscal crisis that will inevitably require a major increase in revenues. In case that sounds like a euphemism, I'll say it plainly: Taxes must go up. If Democrats try to avoid that fact, they'll become mired in trench warfare with Republicans over small-bore increases that will cost them political support and won't really address the problem. But if Democrats seize the opportunity to define a new era of the politics of taxes, as Republicans did 30 years ago, they can shape the debate in a way that may actually help them to achieve some of their most-cherished policy goals.

So how's that going? At the time I remember thinking that Mark's piece was fairly persuasive, but the 2008 campaign sure doesn't seem to bear it out. Barack Obama, the progressive candidate, has certainly not campaigned on tax increases. In fact, he has loudly and consistently based his campaign almost entirely on a promise to cut taxes for 95% of Americans. He could probably fund the national debt for the price of the ads touting his tax cutting credentials. Amidst all that, the only teensy weensy concession he's made to higher taxes is an increase — all the way to 1990s levels! — for the highest earning 5%.

This is, of course, about as moderate a tax policy as you could possibly hope for. But even so, he's only barely gotten away with it. The response from the McCain campaign to that teensy weensy increase has been to go completely ballistic, accusing Obama of everything from socialism to Marxism to wanting to firebomb Joe the Plumber's cozy little Ohio cottage. In the end, it looks like this barrage of inanity won't work, but conservatives are sticking to it and they really do seem to be getting at least some traction with it. If Obama had nodded even slightly further in the direction of tax hikes, there's a good chance McCain would be making serious inroads on him right about now.

There's not much question that, eventually, taxes are going to have to go up. George Bush has ensured that. But it looks like we've been a little premature in declaring the end of the tax revolt. Apparently it still has few last gasps left in it.

Economy Watch - 10.30.2008

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 1:08 PM EDT

ECONOMY WATCH....I guess it's now official that the economy sucks:

The U.S. economy shrank by .3 percent in the third quarter, government data released this morning shows, confirming an economic slowdown that was already showing itself through steady job losss and declining consumer sales.

....The drop in personal consumption was a particular drag on growth. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, and it dropped at a 3.1 percent annualized rate between July and September — the biggest quarterly decline in more than 20 years.

....It was in large part a jump in government spending — at the federal, state and local levels, with a more than 18 percent annualized increase in defense spending — that held off an even steeper decline. Overall government spending added 1.15 percent to GDP.

With his usual impeccable timing and sense for the public mood, John McCain naturally took this moment to....stop talking about the economy and instead try to suddenly "steer the presidential-campaign conversation to national security." Nice work, Senator.

As for the economy itself, I think everyone now agrees that we're in a recession. But did it start in the third quarter, or did it start last December? It almost feels like we need a new word here. High schools now call their advanced algebra classes "precalculus," and the first half of this year feels like it was a "prerecession." There really didn't seem much doubt about where we were headed, but technically we weren't quite there. Now we are.

The Obama Infomercial

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 12:35 PM EDT

THE OBAMA INFOMERCIAL....The Nielsen people just emailed to tell me that Barack Obama's infomercial last night was viewed by 21.7% of all households watching TV. That compares to 38.3% for the final Obama-McCain debate.

Is that good? Bad? I'm not sure, really. But with the kind of money the Obama campaign has, I guess it doesn't matter much.

What did everyone think of it? I thought it was (duh) really well done and did a good job of presenting Obama as both a serious candidate and a normal human being. On the other hand, the tales of woe struck me as a little heavy handed. I think it might have been better if it had been a little less gloomy.

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Obama's 30 Minutes of Primetime Air Mentions McCain Not Once: Why

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 11:58 AM EDT

Just want to add a note to Elizabeth's thoughts on the Obama infomercial. A reader at TPM observes, "Obama can go on TV for 30 minutes and not mention John McCain even once. No way would the reverse be true." He or she is obviously correct: the McCain campaign has spent most of its time these past few weeks making a negative case for Barack Obama, instead of a positive case for itself. Everyone knows that's a product of Barack Obama's unique background and associations (has a previous presidential candidate ever had a relationship, no matter how insignificant, with an unrepentant terrorist?). It's also a product of the Republican Party's bankrupt credibility and discredited ideas. No one believes Republicans have policy proposals that will help the middle class, and no one would trust them to implement them properly if they did. The only thing left is to go after the other guy.

But I want to make one other point. John McCain has a much harder time making a positive case for himself than most candidates because he simply has zero warmth factor. I don't believe I've ever seen tape of him sitting down at a middle class family's kitchen table. I can't imagine him holding a child or posing with a monkey backpack. Outside of the POW factor, which may not have the currency we all imagine, there's little he has to sell. Certainly not enough to fill a 30-minute infomercial.

VIDEO: Former Bush I Aide Declines To Say He Will Vote for McCain

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 11:05 AM EDT

Every few weeks, I do a Bloggingheads.tv diavlog with Jim Pinkerton, one of my favorite conservatives. Months ago, Pinkerton, who was a top aide for the first President Bush and who was a senior adviser to Mike Huckabee's presidential effort, predicted that Barack Obama would be (or could be) destroyed by a campaign that highlighted his ties to Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. In a diavlog we conducted on Wednesday, Pinkerton said that John McCain didn't do all that was necessary for such a crusade to work, but he also noted his admiration for Obama (though not his policy ideas). It seemed to me that Pinkerton was close to endorsing Obama. So as our conversation was finishing, I asked whom he was voting for. You can see the exchange that ensued at the end of this clip:

Note that Pinkerton declined repeated opportunities to say that he will vote for McCain.

Profane Quote of the Day

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 10:59 AM EDT

In an article about Mark Salter, a man who has served John McCain in some capacity for 19 years and is considered his strongest loyalist, the Washington Post notes that Salter almost quit the McCain campaign in the dark days of summer 2007, but didn't because of a strong talking-to from the candidate himself.

"Listen," McCain finally said. "I'm dead man walking. I know it. I'm dead man walking. I'm going to lose this campaign [for the nomination]. . . . But I'm going to get up and work hard every day until it's over. Every day. That's what I'm going to do. So tell me something: Why are you acting like such a [wimp]?"

Hmmm, what do you think [wimp] replaces in that sentence?

A World Series We Can Believe In?

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 1:48 AM EDT

A WORLD SERIES WE CAN BELIEVE IN?....A friend points out that the last time the Phillies won the Series was October 1980, ushering in the election of Ronald Reagan and a long era of conservative ascendency. Tonight the Phillies won again. Another sign of a new era in politics? Maybe!