Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why Most Politics Blogs Are A Waste of Time-- And Why It Matters

Dina Nisser asked me what I thought of Joe Biden's remarks in Brussels, and I, embarrassingly, had no idea what Biden had said in Brussels. So I typed "Biden Brussels" into Google, and got an astonishingly long list of right-wing websites in response.

It seems that in his opening remarks to the European Parliament, Biden had said this:

As you already know, ladies and gentlemen,[...] some American politicians and American journalists refer to Washington, DC as the “capital of the free world.”  But it seems to me that this great city, which boasts 1,000 years of history and which serves as the capital of Belgium, the home of the European Union, and the headquarters for NATO, this city has its own legitimate claim to that title.

This strikes me harmless political flattery. In particular, note that the phrase "its own legitimate claim" clearly implies that Washington has a legitimate claim to the title, and that the inclusion of NATO suggests that wherever the capital is, American military power has a lot to do with it.

But this innocuous sentence provoked fury in the right-wing hemiblogosphere. It probably started with a syndicated column by one Jonah Goldberg that appeared in National Review Online,,, and other places, and was then picked up on by Rush Limbaugh. (I've made no attempt to get the exact sequence of events straight; for all I know Limbaugh may have been the first.) Goldberg remarks, "He was telling the unaccountable Lilliputians of the EUrocracy that Gulliver sees them as equals now." (Mr. Goldberg, you do know what "parliament" means, right?)

And before you can say "Michele Bachmann"  the story is popping up on gatewaypundit,,, David Horowitz's NewsReal Blog, Freedom Eden,,,,,,,,,,, (remember them?),,, and so on and so on.

So why are most politics blogs a waste of time? Because they're saying the same thing as a hundred other blogs. It's like two mirrors facing each other in a barbershop (back when there were such things as barbershops)-- you get the impression of a vast corridor, but it's an illusion. And why does it matter? Take a look.

At the more popular of these sites, the story on Biden is followed by a string of comments from readers: "sounds like treason to me;" "you know when they scooped out his brain tumor, half his brain was removed instead;" "This is further evidence of the obsession progressives have with instituting a global government. There are NO elected representatives in world government. Their goal is a world-wide socialist dictatorship run by elites;" "This is a slap in the face of every American who ever served and especially the ones who gave their all and never returned. This is an insult to them of huge proportion an unforgivable insult. To have these two dolts tell us that the capital of the world is Brussels Belgium." And so on and so on.

OK, so there are a lot of angry wackos out there. What's your point, Howard?

Here's the point: a democratic society needs not just voting but discussion, argument. And this is getting harder and harder to find. We spend more and more time on the much pleasanter task of talking to people who agree with us. Indeed, as a recent Important Book has pointed out, people are increasingly choosing to live in neighborhoods with people who think like them.  To cite one cited-to-death statistic, in the 1976 presidential election 27% of Americans lived in counties where one candidate won by 20% or more; in 2004, 48% did. And there is evidence that people who are only exposed to the opinion of people like them develop more extreme views; in effect, the extreme looks like a small deviation from the norm.

The internet has allowed the development of virtual communities of people who may live very far apart. But this makes it even easier to avoid those annoying people who don't agree with you. The role of comments on these websites seems to be mainly to allow people to luxuriate in how virtuous they and their fellow commenters are and how dumb the outsiders are. Few people actually bother to look at the original items that the blogger is discussing; the point is more to affirm membership in the group.

For all you liberals who are thinking, "Tsk, tsk; aren't those right-wingers terrible!"-- not so fast, buddy. I had no sooner come back from visiting the echo chamber on Biden than I stumbled into The NewYork Times's environment blog. The writer was lambasting the chairman of BP for his infamous "We care about the small people" remark, which struck me as an obvious mistake by a non-native speaker who doesn't grasp fine nuances in English. A lot of the commenters wasted no time in piling on. You can see my comment at #27. (In fairness to Times readers, a number of them came to Mr. Svanberg's defense, some with detailed discussion of similar expressions in Swedish.)

The political implications of all this are unsettling enough. Even scarier are the psychospiritual implications: Technology has enabled us to isolate ourselves more and more from anything outside our control, and to move ever closer to a solipsistic virtual reality where all we see is reflections of ourselves. I don't think this can be good. But enough on that.

What can be done about this? Here's a suggestion for personal action: several times a week, read a website by someone you strongly disagree with. Maybe you'll be convinced on that particular issue. If not, break up the stifling consensus by adding a comment. Make it polite and respectful no matter how annoyed you feel; yelling begets yelling, and that doesn't convince anybody. But don't feel bad if you don't convince anyone. Your goal is just to let in a little air.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Tempest in a Teapot

From this side of the pond, it's hard to avoid bewilderment at the British charges of Anglophobia over the reaction to the BP oil spill. For any Briton reading this, let me assure you that the level of anger here would be at least as great if ExxonMobil had done what BP did: create the worst environmental disaster in American history, have by far the worst safety record (by a factor of  a hundred or so) of any major oil company, consistently understate the size of the problem, lag in organizing the cleanup, and so on and on. Anglophobia? In your dreams. Who do you think you are, the French?

BP, we are told, is a British icon, which only adds to our confusion.  GM, Harley Davidson, Apple, Coca Cola, maybe Hilton, are American icons. Oil companies are not American icons. I can't help suspecting that there's some projection going on: you just know that if Exxon oil were washing up on the beaches of Scotland we'd be hearing about uncouth, money-crazed, market-worshiping American cowboys.

Intellectually, the most interesting part of  this uproar has been the fury at the suggestion that BP cut its dividend. For many years, a big puzzle in academic finance theory has been why firms pay dividends at all. If companies simply held on to their cash, those retained earnings would be reflected in a higher stock price, which would be a capital gain for stockholders, with big tax advantages. Yet most companies pay dividends, and the market generally regards an increase in the dividend as good news about the company and a decrease as bad news.

I won't take you through all the ins and outs of this topic, but some of the leading theories don't help us to understand the vehemence of the reaction. One theory is that dividend increases are a way for management to signal optimism about the company's prospects. They can't just say they're optimistic, because talk is cheap and no one would believe them. By paying a larger dividend they can show that they expect to have more cash in the future. Yet surely no one now could take a cut in BP's dividend as a signal of anything, given the political pressure on management to do it.

Another theory is that paying dividends is a way to keep management from wasting money on unprofitable spending, which they would be more apt to do if they had a lot of cash lying around. But since it's already clear that BP will be spending a lot on cleanup, and that any dividend cut will be temporary, it's hard to believe that investors are worried that management will fritter away the cash not paid out in dividends.

Anyway, stay tuned. BP's board is supposed to make a decision soon about the next dividend, and we'll see what happens to the stock price. It beats looking at pictures of dead pelicans.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Breaking News

A recent AP news story on the Blagojevich trial is followed by: "THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below."

What has been updated since their earlier story? Well, it turns out the two stories are identical, except that they changed "easle" into "easel." Hope they caught that before it showed up in print around the country.

In case you're wondering, the subject was not Blagojevich's artistic talents. His chief of staff testified that shortly after Blagojevich became governor, he and his inner circle sat around a conference table writing down money-making ideas on an easel. Oh, Rod...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

More Ignorance About the Middle East

I've been meaning to do a post about Israel, but it's been hard to keep up with all the different information about the "Freedom Flotilla": were the Israelis dumb (a frequently expressed opinion in the Israeli media), unlucky, or what? I have some observations about why Israel does so badly in the world media, but I'll get to those in the near future.

Today, I want to say a few words about Helen Thomas, the dean (or, if you prefer, doyenne) of the Washington press corps, who has just resigned after saying that the Jews in Israel should get out and go back to Poland or Germany. As usual, I'll try to avoid the obvious outraged or snarky comments (should Helen Thomas go back to England?).

The first point is that Israelis have no place to go. Seventy percent of Israelis were born there. Almost all of those, presumably, have no native language other than Hebrew. They are as Israeli as Helen Thomas is American.

The second point is that fewer than half of all Israeli Jews come from families originating in Eastern Europe. More than fifty percent are from families originating in Arab countries. (There are other possibilities, of course, such as the 2% or so from Ethiopia.) There is a Palestinian narrative about how Israel is an alien European transplant that the West foisted on Arabs because of guilt about the Holocaust, for which Arabs were not responsible. But the fact is that most Israeli Jews are refugees or descendants of refugees from Arab countries.

Furthermore, for complex reasons, those are the Jews who make up the bulk of the right wing in Israel. A Palestinian state would be a lot easier if everyone who lived in Israel were from Poland or Germany.

My next question was going to be how the Palestinians managed to sell their narrative so successfully that someone who spent almost fifty years covering the White House would buy it. But I just heard (thanks, Natalie) that Thomas is of Lebanese descent (related to Danny and Marlo?), so she may not be typical. Still, I wonder how many reporters, including those who report on the Middle East, know that most Israeli Jews originate in Arab countries.

It appears, then, that saying, "Helen Thomas, go back to England," is quite analogous to what she said, especially since she was born in Kentucky. Not that I would ever say such a thing.