No bias. No bull. No information.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, it will probably come as no surprise that I don’t consume much mainstream news, particularly the televised variety. Having dinner with my CNN-addicted in-laws a few days ago exposed me to an episode of Campbell Brown: No Bias. No Bull.

The particular segment to which I paid attention focussed on the U.S. government’s impending interventions into the auto industry. To the show’s credit, they did seem to give more air time than the average show to a single topic. Unfortunately, they didn’t fill it with much other than prattle. There were some words you heard repeated over and over, such as “bailout” and “billions”. One word that I didn’t hear at all, however, was “loan”. (I looked for transcripts of this show to verify this, but couldn’t find any. Leave a link in a comment below if you know where they are kept.) You couldn’t be blamed for concluding from the coverage that the government was contemplating giving free money to GM, rather than providing them the federal loans that they are actually requesting. You know, loans that would mean we’d be getting the cash back, with interest. Now, while giving loans to GM is stupid enough on its own, it doesn’t need any media trickery that makes it sound like something stupider, like just giving them free money.

Given that the auto-industry is a powerful lobby, it may turn out that they can weasel out of these loans at some point in the future, so maybe no one actually believes the idea that these would be loans. But if so that is the story, and you’d expect at least a passing comment on it.

While the difference between a loan and gift seems rather fundamental to me, mainstream media seems to either not understand the difference, not care, and/or assume that their audience doesn’t know or care either. They (and this particular CNN show is far from alone here) appear to be happy essentially screaming “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” over and over for a bit, then cutting to a talking head who screams “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” a bit more. When covering the “$700 billion bailout” the government is engaged in now, nearly every media source I watched or read seemed to go out of their way to give the impression that this money was just being pissed away. Some of it surely will be, but mostly the idea is to buy things. While the government will probably overpay for these assets—hard to tell for sure, because the main problem is no one really knows what they are worth—but they are certainly worth more than zero. Most of the money buys instruments that are ultimately backed by houses. This might force the government to be something like a landlord to get value out of these assets, which, gee, seems like a fairly important story for journalists to cover to me. Or, how about the story that, while the plan calls for buying things (and thus, the possibility of recovering losses), the lawmakers that did as much as anyone to cause this mess in the first place are now screaming that this money shouldn’t be used to buy things, but rather to just give money to citizens who can’t add in order to allow them to shirk their obligations. That seems like a good story, too.

Or, how about a story detailing people that saw this collapse coming and how Wall Street will never look the same again. That would be interesting.

Or even just pieces that help inform the viewer, such as a metaphor for what’s causing the credit crisis or what the hell these freaky instruments are that caused all the trouble. Those would be welcome stories as well.

Fortunately, such stories exist. You just won’t find them on television.

Election update

Care-O-MeterToday, I am upgrading my Care-O-Meter for the 2008 U.S. Presidential race from its previous rating of “slight” to “moderate”. The world seems to be more enthusiastic.

Most interesting to me were the results in my home state of Colorado, which I consider to be a litmus test for the nation. (I’m not the only one, by the way. Colorado has been used to test market products for decades, thanks to its mix of race, urban and rural population, blue and white collar, military and civilian, Christian! and Christian and not-quite-so-Christian, Republican and Democrat, even mountain and plain. I experienced the joys of Crystal Pepsi, for example, before most of you.) Colorado drifted Democrat in the big races this year, but the ballot issues were more interesting.

One of them attempted to change the definition of “person” in the state Constitution to start at the moment of conception. I’m not surprised that this was defeated, since it was called by some “unreasonable, inflexible anti-abortion extremism”; however, given that it got on the ballot at all, I was surprised to see how universally it got thrashed. Equally interesting, the so-called “end affirmative action” initiative is still a dead heat at the time of this post.

Blame

In the film Rising Sun, Sean Connery’s character claims that “the Japanese have a saying: ‘Fix the problem, not the blame.’ Find out what’s f—- up and fix it. Nobody gets blamed. We’re always after who f—- up. Their way is better.” While this is not universally true (sometimes fixing the problem does mean assigning blame), it’s true enough: Americans, particularly American media, are much more fixated on pointing fingers than solving problems. With the current financial crisis, there is no shortage of culpability to go around, and the standard blame orgy is in full swing. Unfortunately, almost no one, least of all the media, is even mentioning one of the largest culprits: the American consumer. Far from assigning even a tiny bit of the blame there, most noticeably exclude them from analysis. In the debate last night, McCain went so far as to call them “innocent victims of greed and excess”.

Wrong.

The American public, that is currently raising such a stink about this crisis, did as much to cause it as anyone. They are not the sole cause, to be sure, but they are not innocent and it disgusts me they they (we) are getting a pass. One of the few to even mention this is Chris Plummer, who recently provided a menu of blame that included the general public, twice:

Consumers

Railing against greedy thieves in the financial industry ignores how readily Americans availed themselves of the cheap credit that same industry offered them. If there’s honor among junkies, it’s that they don’t blame their drug dealer for their addiction.

American workers

Employees across all industries suddenly fear for their jobs and resulting financial hardship as the nation appears headed into a recession of considerable depth. The ones most at risk are the millions who lived beyond their means and failed to steer earnings into savings for just such potential emergencies. They sadly face just desserts for feasting high on the hog.

That may be harsh, but it is largely true. It’s clear that the trigger for this crisis has been home loans made to people who ultimately couldn’t pay them back. Yet, in a society of finger pointing, somehow no one seems willing to even mention that, just perhaps, the people that agreed to take such loans might have, just perhaps, helped to totally screw us all.

The common rebuttal to this is “but there was criminal, predatory lending! Those people didn’t know what they were getting into! They were being lied to!” But, even if there was outright fraud in every single case, “those people” still signed the paperwork. Essentially, this rebuttal is saying that consumers who suck at math and reading comprehension are automatically innocent. This argument doesn’t hold up in any other venue. I’d like to believe that a small outlay of cash to a rich Nigerian in exile would net me millions but, if I fell for this scam, no one would call me an innocent victim. They’d say I got what I deserved for being so stupid and greedy. Blame certainly falls on the scammer, but also on the willing participation of the scammed. It takes two to tango.

When you are out and about, and a bomb set by a complete stranger goes off and kills you for no reason, you are an innocent victim. If you willingly enter a contract that fully explains what will happen, you are not innocent, no matter what anyone told you the contract said. That isn’t how contracts work. If you don’t understand a contract, you don’t sign it. Especially for something as large and important as a home.

You hear a lot of demand for “accountability” from the public, the media and politicians regarding Wall Street, government, the banking industry and so on. But this same public seems pathologically unable to be accountable themselves. We demand responsibility from others, but shown none ourselves. Why would we? We have no end of talking heads telling us we are the innocent victims.

Now, as mentioned, “Main Street” isn’t the sole culprit in this. There are a lot of other forces at work (which samaBlog lucidly explained). The point of this post is not to lay the blame solely at the public’s feet, but rather to act as one of the only places that assigns them any blame at all.

I tend to agree with the sentiment from a bad Michael Crichton movie that started this post, that blame just isn’t particularly useful. But, if you must point fingers, make sure you point them in the right direction.

Beyond the five W’s

All introductory journalistic training starts with the “five W’s (and one H)” (who? what? when? where? why? how?), representing the types of facts that should appear in the lead of a story. Unfortunately, many journalists these days seem to think that is all they need do: find the most obvious answers to those questions, relate them, move on to the next deadline. While this passes for news, it’s not very useful for actual understanding. The superficial answers to these questions are almost never the truth necessary to draw real conclusions about an event. That requires real digging into these questions (particularly “why?”) and since that is actually hard, you get the kind of limp, gloss-over journalism-like news of today.

Take this CNN story, for example: Nigeria militants ‘raze’ Shell oil complex. As per basic training, the story holds the five W’s:

  • Who?: The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
  • What?: “attacked Shell’s Alakiri flow station, gas plant and field logistics base… killing a guard and wounding four others.”
  • When?: “Monday”
  • Where?: “southwest of Port Harcourt”, Nigeria’s delta region
  • Why?: “The rebel group hopes to secure a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for people in the delta, where more than 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.”
  • How?: They “‘stormed’ the flow station complex…set fire to the facility and ‘razed it to the ground.'”

So, what do you know? Some people blew up an oil station in Nigeria. You’re told that they want the oil wealth for themselves. That sounds reasonable. On to the next story. A few basic problems: first, if the intent is to gain the oil wealth for themselves, why are they destroying the facilities that would let them claim it, rather than taking them over? Seems like a bad strategy. Maybe they have good reasons for this. Maybe there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe they just failed basic economics. The point is, this is a pretty obvious question to at least ask, but journalists don’t seem to be interested. They don’t seem concerned that the basic motivation they give for the event doesn’t really make any sense. It’s almost as if the intent is to sound informative, not actually be informative.

I was on a jury once, and it was very frustrating to watch the lawyers work. You kept wanting to scream at them to ask a certain question, usually one that never came. Is it important they didn’t ask it? Was not asking it strategy, or just incompetence? Who knows? I’m just a juror, so can’t actually ask any questions. Reading modern news stories is much the same experience, except I’m just some guy at a desk and not, you know, the person getting paid to actually report on what’s happening in front of his own eyes.

I looked through the top 10 hits on Google for this particular news story. Some were better than others. Some pointed out that the group is “well-equipped”, “heavily armed”, and using “dozens of speedboats” and “dynamite and other explosives”. Many mention that the group is responsible for reducing Nigeria’s oil output by a 20-25%.

None of these stories, however, even asked the question to which I wanted the answer, much less answered it: given that this is a force of “indigenous people” and most of the indigenous people live on “less than a dollar a day”, from where is MEND getting the money for all these weapons, speedboats and explosives?

A bit more Googling revealed not much more information. Someplace called the International Crisis Group, summarizes the situation in Nigeria and at least says that MEND “has not revealed the identity of its leaders or the source of its funds but its actions demonstrate that it is better armed and organised than previous militant groups.” Contrary to the journalists, this group does care about these funds, claiming they come from oil theft and “protection” rackets, where oil companies pay to avoid being targeted. This is at least more informative, even if it doesn’t necessarily match the current set of attacks. Did Shell just refuse to pay and are now being made an example? Has MEND graduated past the need for such financing? Gee, if only there was some kind of publication or company that would send people to these places, with the job of asking these kinds of questions and reporting back to us.

As before, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Until I do, I will continue to foam at the mouth about it. Sorry.

By the way, I have a theory that this type of shallow journalism also explains why more people seem to be willing to accept conspiracy theories these days. Since the news isn’t actually providing explanations of anything (or, worse, those they do offer contain obvious flaws), people just assume that something else must be going on that makes more sense, and will go through paradoxically nonsensical contortions to guess at it.

For example, with this Nigerian story, a) the attacks seemed geared at stopping oil production, rather than gaining control of it and b) that would decrease the supply of oil and c) raise the price, which d) would be good for other oil producers. Since e) no other theory seems to exist, I’m just going to assume that OPEC is funding these people. Unless I lived in the European Union, when I would assume that Russia was doing it. (Look! I’m halfway to believing things without facts, just like religion would have me do. Must be a conspiracy.)

The new DivNull Productions

On my to-do list for far too long, a revamp of the main DivNull Software web site has been completed. The original intention of the main divnull.com site (and of DivNull in general) was to be a shareware development company. The site was sort of my “professional face”, while blogs like this one are more personal. Unfortunately, the “professional face” hasn’t really done much of late, and never really did much in the way of producing shareware anyway.

So, with this site redesign comes a big shift in what the site was for. Renamed “DivNull Productions”, the site will now feature news about whatever it is that I am producing in my spare time for public consumption, be it software, artwork or text. For example, I spend quite a bit of time (way too much) making stuff for roleplaying games. Previously, this kind of stuff wouldn’t have been listed on the main DivNull site, because it didn’t have anything to do with shareware. Likewise, this blog isn’t really the proper venue (though I have made a couple of announcements of this kind here). So, that changes now.

Going forward, if you want to see what I’m thinking or ranting about, this blog remains the place. But, if you want to see what I am making, regardless of medium, then head on over to DivNull Productions.

The black horse

Now that idiot thugs are refusing disaster relief and rice shortage prophesies are being self-fulfilled, it won’t be long until famine starts to rear its head. While many people are busy dying, those that aren’t will be spreading blame around. Blame will fall on bad weather, bad crops, bad luck, even on Al Gore. But the truth will be none of these. While starvation is (obviously) caused by a lack of food, famine—that is, widespread starvation over a large area—is the result of bad government.

As far as food goes, governments fail their people in two ways: by failing to plan for bad times and by bungling (or, all to often, profiting from) crises when some external event triggers a food problem. Usually, famine involves both. In its 2002 coverage of Ethiopia entitled “Bad weather, and bad government”, the Economist said:

Bad weather is rarely enough, on its own, to kill large numbers of people. Famine usually requires bad government, too…. In Ethiopia, the food crisis has been aggravated by the legacy of a senseless border war with neighboring Eritrea between 1998 and 2000. It killed tens of thousands, forced 350,000 to flee their homes, blasted both countries’ infrastructure and prompted foreign donors to freeze a lot of aid. In all, it cost Ethiopia an estimated $2.9 billion—almost a whole year’s output for every farmer in a country where 80 per cent of the population lives on farms. Such a monumental man-made disaster has made it harder for the country to cope with a natural one.

The millions of Chinese that starved from 1958 to 1961 also owe their deaths more to their government’s response to natural disaster than to the disasters themselves, even by that governments own admission. Research into other famines by Amartya Sen reached similar conclusions. Even black swan events, such as fungus unexpectedly killing potatoes needs bad government to become the Irish Potato Famine.

Our modern reaction to famine in other countries is to send relief aid and “keep them in our prayers”. This probably saves a few lives (at least in countries where the government isn’t stealing the aid), but treats the symptom, not the disease. You will continue to see famine in country after country until we change this “we sympathize” tune we sing into an accusation of incompetence against the government causing the problem, even our own (especially our own). Some, for example, are taking the World Bank to task, claiming it created policies that encourage governments to create famine. This is a step in the right direction, but a better step would be to also blame the governments themselves.

Art “Four Horsemen: Famine” by Greyskin666.

The knife

The death of an 18-year old girl from voluntary breast surgery explains the timing of this post, but is only tangentially related to its point. In the coming days, there will likely be a huge fuss about plastic surgery in the media, with people screaming on all sides in what passes for debate in that venue. Some, like this article, will make mention of an American Society of Plastic Surgeons report (pdf) claiming that the number of breast augmentations in 2007 increased 64% over the number in 2000. Some will claim this as a sign of the decline of Western Civilization. They may be right, but not in the way that they think.

In the past five years, health insurance providers have gained more and more control over the business of health in the United States. This has made them very profitable, as this comparison of four large, publicly held health insurers—Humana (HUM), CIGNA Corporation (CI), United Health Group Inc. (UNH) and Aetna Inc. (AET)—with the S&P 500 index from 2003 to 2007 shows (for the color blind, the S&P line is the one on the bottom):

Stock comparison
Image and data from Google Finance

In the process, they have essentially gained control of the pricing of nearly every procedure that they cover. They, not the doctor, set how much the doctor charges. I will have more to say about this later but, briefly, the result of this has been to cause a toxic environment with at least two major consequences: 1) in most cases, neither the person consuming health care nor the person providing it have any input or influence on what the care costs (this basically turns the invisible hand into a middle finger) and 2) doctors are now, essentially, indentured servants to insurance companies.

As a direct result of the latter development, doctors in private practice are now forced to make one of three choices: either close their practice down now, continue practicing until forced to close by bankruptcy, or find some way of making money that doesn’t involve dealing with insurance companies. A great many doctors have been choosing the third path by exploiting a loophole of sorts: insurance companies usually don’t cover voluntary surgery. Voluntary surgery, like breast augmentation.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that plastic surgery is on the rise. There are now huge numbers of doctors motivated to get people to pay for it, so that the doctors themselves can, you know, house themselves and eat. This makes it cheaper, easier to get, and gives plastic surgery the perception that it is now routine (which, sadly, it is becoming). Ever heard of labial plastic surgery, where women have their genital “lips” reduced? You will, as millions of OB/GYNs discover they can’t actually survive by doing things like delivering children into the world.

As I said, I will have more to say on this later. For now, keep in mind when watching all these idiots on television that the rise in plastic surgery has real economic causes.