Volatility

November 11, 2009

Morality Play

The Nation‘s Katrina Vanden Heuvel recently took part in a formal debate arguing against the resolution, “Good Riddance to the Mainstream Media”.
 
Her opening statement (part of a winning effort) describes the much-tarnished but still needed qualifications of the MSM; how it is the only vehicle for consistent investigative reportage, for confronting power, exposing corruption, filing transparency lawsuits, and how the collapse of regional newspapers correlates with signs of civic degradation like lower voter turnouts. While the MSM is fatally flawed and economically unsustainable, it’s still the only thing partially fulfilling those roles. So until we can develop a replacement, we have to lament the financial decline of the MSM just as much as we deplore its ideological sellout.
 
The economic deterioration of the business is certainly dire. According to reports, as of September weekday sales of print newspapers were down 10% over the previous year’s already depleted number. Ad revenue was down 28% percent from 2008, which was itself down 16.6% from the previous year. Beleaguered papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning news, NY Post, Boston Globe, and USA Today were down as much as 25.8%. The NYT’s weekday circulation went below one million for the first time since the 80s. Truly, “the two-decade erosion in newspaper circulation is looking more like an avalanche”.
 
In a vicious circle, as they cut back on content to save money, they lose more readers. (I can offer the personal anecdote that I stopped getting the Newark Star-Ledger (down 22.7%) for that reason. The old regional and local news value wasn’t there anymore. It was becoming more like an AP wire with a few New Jersey stories tacked on. Not to mention more and more frequent delivery SNAFUs.)
 
Vanden Heuvel mentions this in her statement:
 

[W]e’ve chronicled the msm’s corporate consolidation which –through the gutting of newsrooms in quest for ever higher profit margins–contributed to the journalistic crisis we confront today.

 
I would go further and say that the ideological capture I mentioned above is not only driven by this consolidation but contributes to the erosion of the audience, as the people increasingly realize how the MSM is only the flunkey of the power elites and tells only the story according to those elites.
 
Today’s (11/11) NYT business page has a bizarre specimen: “Under attack, Fed chairman studies politics”, by Edmund Andrews (of personal financial disaster fame). 
 
You have to see the fun in something like this to leaven the rage.
 

For months, he had warned — without anyone on Capitol Hill appearing to listen — that a seemingly innocuous bill to let Congress “audit” the Fed would gravely threaten the central bank’s independence.

 
Uh oh, there’s ominous foreshadowing. “Seemingly innocuous”; if only they’d listen to our brave, lonely hero’s warnings…
 

Voters had become suspicious and unnerved by the Fed because of its trillion-dollar efforts to bail out the financial system, Mr. Frank warned. If the Fed really wanted to survive the disgruntlement in both parties, he continued, Mr. Bernanke would have to step back and let him devise a compromise.

Reluctantly, the Fed chairman agreed to reduce his own visibility on the issue and let Mr. Frank take the lead.

 
Maybe it wasn’t literally a smoke-filled room (they’re all quite PC about that nowadays). But it’s still the age-old struggle of the wise mandarins against the stupid, insolent poltroons. The people get especially obnoxious when they become “voters” in a “democracy”. Kissinger would sympathize.
 

On one front, the Fed faces populist anger from both left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans about its power and secrecy.

 
Right. None of the criticism of the unaccountable, reckless, scofflaw Fed (from the Left, at least) is based on policy and democracy concerns. Gosh darn that soiled rag-wearing “populism”.
 

Mindful that Democrats now control the White House and Congress, Mr. Bernanke put up virtually no opposition to President Obama’s proposal for a new consumer agency that would take over the Fed’s authority over consumer lending issues. Similarly, he avoided a bruising turf battle by agreeing that the Fed would share responsibility with other regulators to monitor systemic financial risk.

 
This is a lie. The Fed has aggressively sought to protect and extend its turf throughout.
 
And if Bernanke didn’t know all along that Obama and Frank had his back on gutting the CFPA, so that he should just keep his mouth shut and let them handle the politics, he really is a political idiot in need of guidance.
 
Andrews goes on to describe how Bernanke protested against the Audit the Fed bill in “apocalyptic terms”, how critical Fed secrecy and autocracy are to the continued existence of civilization. It’s all the same terrorist language which has become all too familiar to us.
 
Directly contradicting what he said in the previous paragraph, Andrews also writes about how the “steely” Fed fought fiercely for its “role as undisputed overseer of financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail'”.
 
In other words, in spite of himself Bernanke confirmed the need for the auditing bill. And for Frank to take him under his political tutelage.
 

What Mr. Bernanke insisted on, and what Mr. Frank vowed to prevent, was Congressional interference in Fed deliberations over monetary policy.

But whenever discussion got more specific, Fed officials insisted that monetary policy extended to many if not most of the Fed’s emergency credit programs.

Mr. Frank said he would “wall off” deliberations on basic monetary policy, and delay the release of information about the Fed’s financial operations to prevent traders from capitalizing on its moves.

Exactly what that means in practice remains unclear. Mr. Paul says he is delighted that his bill has gotten so far. But details matter, and Fed officials say they are quietly confident details will break their way.

 
It’s very clear what this means. They’re going to keep the Fed/Wall Street casino party going. With this puff piece Andrews is doing his part in the eternal struggle against the people’s rights and well-being.
 
Even where they weren’t self-selected ideologues in the first place, most business journalists are by now, pretty much of necessity, cheerleaders for the growth ideology, market fundamentalism, corporatist politics. The coverage becomes ever more corporate friendly, told from the point of view of the rich, right down to the most petty details and annoyances of their lives. The economy is represented as a bundle of metrics, leading indicators like “growth” and the various exchanges, which mostly measure how well antisocial parasites are collecting rents. Everyone in government, business, and MSM agrees, this is “the” economy.
 
Meanwhile the real economic measures which don’t look good (and have not since the 90s) are relegated to the ghetto of “lagging indicators”. This term still reflects the thousand-times-refuted-but-never-relinquished trickle down ideology.
 
When the lagging jobs indicator becomes too disastrous to dismiss, as it now has, with real unemployment at 17.5% and even the rigged anodyne U3 number over 10% (both of these at their highest in close to thirty years), the nabobs of positivity are left helpless. They can only gawk and stutter about how somehow the administration and Wall Street will figure out something.
 
So the MSM has been doing its best with the increasingly crappy material corporate fundamentalism hands them, and does the gratitude at least come through in the advertising rates? As I mentioned earlier, these continue to decline. Even where advertising volume is creeping back up, it’s mostly according to a cheaper ad run strategy, so MSM ad revenues are still moribund. How’s that “trickling down” for ya?
 
So all the MSM’s prostitution has availed them little. As they say, “the revolution devours its own children”.
 
What went wrong? Weren’t they serviceable villains enough?
 
Perhaps it’s not just the advertising model. Perhaps there’s a hopeful sign here. Perhaps the people are finally starting to see through this charade. Perhaps they’re coming to realize that the MSM is not telling our story, but the story of those who affilict us, and for those who afflict us, and telling it against us, in order to further hurt us.
 
Recently the NYT’s David Carr, one of Vanden Heuvel’s teammates at the debate, wrote of the malaise of the business press.
 
He discusses how, with the green shoots allegedly sprouting all over the place, the attitudes are getting bullish again. But what does this mean for the business press itself?
 

So you might expect the business press to be striking up the band and restocking the cigar cabinet. Instead, Forbes, a magazine that sells a beau idéal of capitalism, announced last week that it was cutting a quarter of its already decimated staff. The Wall Street Journal’s Boston bureau — historically a hothouse of game-changing business coverage — is being closed.

Fortune magazine had already cut back to 18 issues a year from 25 and this week will be whacking anew at staff along with other Time Inc. magazines. BusinessWeek was sold for parts to Bloomberg a few weeks ago.

So, while the business of business may be back, the business of covering it with heroic narratives and upbeat glossy spreads most certainly is not. And probably never will be.

 
Carr mentions the usual suspects, advertising, the shrinking pains of cost cutting and so on. But he ponders whether the fundamental premise has lost its mojo.
 

But it isn’t just that Cadillacs aren’t selling like they used to. It’s also that the people who made them, bought them and drove them seem far more mortal and less interesting than they did just a few years ago.

Business magazines used to relish explaining all the complex new financial instruments that Wall Street was using to pile up profits. But now it has become clear that the titans who were wielding those obscure tools had no idea what they were doing — even less an idea than the journalists in some cases.

And the fact that they needed billions and billions in taxpayer money to bail them out has left the former Masters of the Universe with all the social cachet of welfare recipients. In fact, people on welfare seem more deserving now that some of the rescued have come roaring back just in time for year-end bonuses.

 
They don’t make ’em like they used to. If this media too has to be star-driven, like all American media, they’re facing a real problem now that Americans are finally starting to wise up.
 
It was always stupid to idolize businessmen as if they were celebrity entertainers, but as long as Americans believed they were all getting richer, and believed in the Randian myth of the rugged, self-reliant capitalist, such idolatry could provide the basis for a wide press circulation. If that readership is now evaporating as fast as it should be, this most corporate of media may be in trouble.
 

It’s not that the public has lost its appetite for stories about handsome men in three-piece suits who clink whiskey glasses at the end of a long, not-so-hard day while talking smack about their female co-workers. But “Mad Men” pretty much sates that need. The businessman as Colossus is by now a nostalgic impulse…

But if the consequences are removed from the equation and the feds are there to cushion any downside, riding the upside seems less magical. Writers and editors who cover business now know that the jig is up, that those bespoke suits are put on one leg at a time by men that seem far less Olympian than they once did….

Business coverage has been, at its heart, aspirational, a brand promise that suggests that if you clip the right articles, internalize the right rhetoric, then you too will end up as one of the shiny, happy people striding boldly across the pages of magazines with names like Fortune, Money, Fast Company and Wired. But nobody is going to read, let alone aspire to, magazines called Middled, Outsourced, Left Behind and Clobbered. It’s as if American business has lost custody of its own story….

But people could be forgiven for not believing in business, or business news, the way they used to.

If a recovery is under way, most Average Joes are not buying in or benefiting so far. On Friday, the Commerce Department said consumer spending actually dropped in September, the first time it had gone down in five months, and the Dow buckled 2.5 percent at the end of trading last week. Consumers clearly lack confidence in the recovery, and, by extension, the people who are supposed to make it happen. And doubt doesn’t sell magazines.

 
In The Joyful Science Nietzsche made an interesting remark on the rise of socialism. He knew little about economics or politics (and cared less) but thought he could descry a spiritual and aesthetic factor.
 

Soldiers and leaders still have far better relationships with each other than workers and employers. So far at least, culture that rests on a military basis still towers above all so-called industrial culture: the latter in its present shape is altogether the most vulgar form of existence yet. Here one is at the mercy of brute need; one has to live and has to sell oneself, but one despises those who exploit this need and buy the worker. Oddly, submission to powerful, frightening, even terrible persons, like tyrants and generals, is not experienced as nearly so painful as is this submission to unknown and uninteresting persons, which is what all the luminaries of industry are.

What the workers see in the employer is usually only a cunning, bloodsucking dog of a man who speculates on all misery; and the employer’s name, shape, manner, and reputation are a matter of complete indifference to them. The manufacturers and entrepreneurs of business have been too deficient in all those forms and signs of nobility that alone make a person interesting. If the nobility of birth showed in their eyes and gestures, there might not be any socialism of the masses. For at bottom the masses are willing to submit to slavery of any kind, if only the higher-ups constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command – by having noble manners. The most common man feels that nobility cannot be improvised and that one has to honor in it the fruit of long periods of time.

But the lack of higher manners and the notorious vulgarity of manufacturers with their ruddy, fat hands give him the idea that it is only accident and luck that have elevated one person above another. Well then, he reasons: let us try accident and luck! Let us throw the dice! And thus socialism is born.

 
While that may fall short of Marxian rigor, I think there is some truth to it. The people have always sought to find ways to idolize and romanticize their socioeconomic “betters”, if only to rationalize their own failure to rise up and assert themselves. But if the faltering business press is a different kind of leading indicator, perhaps this idolatry is no longer tenable, and a different sort of rational process is commencing.
 
Arendt, in Origins of Totalitarianism, described an interesting historical moment similar to our own.
 

The historian is in most such cases confronted with a very complex historical situation where he is almost at liberty, and that means at a loss, to isolate one factor as “the spirit of the time”. There are, however, a few helpful general rules. Foremost among them for our purpose is Tocqueville’s great discovery (in L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution) of the motives for the violent hatred felt by the French masses for the aristocracy at the outbreak of the Revolution – an outbreak which stimulated Burke to remark that the revolution was more concerned with “the condition of a gentleman” than with the institution of a king.

According to Tocqueville, the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any appreciable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country. In other words, neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it should be tolerated.

 
Substitute the lost belief in the economic and social function of Wall Street and the rackets, which we now know to be 100% fraudulent, destructive, and parasitic, for the lost political prerogatives of the Ancien Regime, and we have the same dynamic. Tremendous, and utterly worthless, and purely malevolent, wealth concentration.
 
Lucretius felt the change of the world in his time, the great republic riding to the height
Whence every road leads downward; Plato in his time watched Athens
Dance the down path. The future is a misted landscape, no man sees clearly, but at cyclic turns
There is a change felt in the rhythm of events, as when an exhausted horse
Falters and recovers, then the rhythm of the running hoofbeats is changed: he will run miles yet,
But he must fall….
 
Robinson Jeffers, Prescription of Painful Ends
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13 Comments

  1. Socialism would entail the triumph of the wrong kind of morality. I don’t think that’s technically accurate but it adequately captures the sense of the thought. I am trying to paraprase N without getting into his terminology too much.

    (I don’t necessarily agree but I might; I need to study the idea more.)

    Unrelated, here is a book you might find interesting 1844670511.

    Comment by James — November 11, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

    • Yes, I wasn’t getting into N’s thoughts on the politico-moral implications of it, but his analysis that part of the modern workers’ digust is based on the repulsiveness of the pigs who were lofted upward by industrialism.

      You’re right that he did, in the broader sense, think socialistic movements were encouraging a spiritually unhealthy mindset, ressentiment.

      I sympathize, although for the time being we’re stuck with mass scoietes, and I think any kind of movement anywhere on the political spectrum is bound to have pathologies. I doubt that those likely to arise among socialists are more dangerous than those which always arise among fascists.

      Luckily for N, he didn’t actually have to live amid this stuff.

      Comment by Russ — November 12, 2009 @ 4:22 am

  2. I think it’s really interesting how all the social critics are lining up these days to take pot shots at Ayn Rand. Rand is after all the one writer who saw all this coming and explained exactly how it would work. You really have to decide whether or not you are a collectivist and if so how you expect the collective to be managed. The system we are groaning beneath ain’t capitalism. We have entered Rand’s society of pull.

    As for newspapers, I have always considered them quite useful; just don’t read them.

    Comment by jake chase — November 11, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

    • Well, lots of people, including pretty much everyone I mentioned above (Marx, Nietzsche, Arendt, Jeffers) saw this coming.

      Rand may have specialized in the detail of it because unlike them she applauded it and wanted to make it as horrible as possible.

      (Surely it’s not an accident that she’s the guru for all these Wall Streeters?)

      If it’s a “pot shot” to point out that her “self-created, self-reliant” Galtian hero could never exist except by straddling the back of a slave class and a big, aggressive government dedicated to protecting the loot, so be it.

      That’s the fundamental difference between Rand and, for example, Nietzsche (who are always wrongly confounded). The Nietzschean ideal is a spiritual and artistic individual who dreates out of his own mind and never needs a material infrastructure built and paid for by others. Money never comes into it, and N explicitly rejects materialism as a worthwhile motive.

      But with Rand it’s just the loot, always the loot, only the loot.

      I don’t think it’s an accident that her hero was an architect, someone who by definition needs other people’s money, a lot of it, to accomplish anything.

      So, if I’m stuck in a collective, I sure don’t want it to managed in the Randian corporatist way, the way we have now.

      Comment by Russ — November 12, 2009 @ 4:38 am

      • I find Nietzche unreadable so I will take your word for what he thought. You have Rand backwards, however, and as for her being a guru of the Wall Streeters I would be surprised if three of them ever read any of her books. Let’s take Greenspan, who was everything she despised with every step he took, every act he committed as Fed Chairman. Do you think she would have applauded free money for bank speculation?

        A big aggressive government protecting the loot is exactly what you get with altruist collectivist ideology. There is always some ‘public interest’ to be fed: the farmers, the tobacco growers, the defense industry, democracy in Iraq, a war on terrorism (which doesn’t even require an identifiable enemy), homeowners with underwater mortgages, bank speculators.

        Rand was not a corporatist. She was an individualist, an idealist, a moralist. Corporatists are people like Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Dodd, Frank. I won’t even mention the Republicans; can’t think of any names to be honest.

        Dodd issues an 1136 page Financial Reform Bill. Have you read it? It creates new authorities with virtually unlimited powers, yet it makes no decisions on how instrument or market actor is to be constrained. This is corporatism. Every decision will be made in the dark on the basis of political pull.

        Ultimately, you either leave people free to make voluntary arrangements or you designate an authority to make decisions binding on all of them. Collectivists always imagine that high minded people (like themselves) will end up in charge. Hayek explained why you always get Stalin, sooner or later. It is pretty clear to me which way we are headed.

        You ought to take another look at Atlas Shrugged.

        Comment by jake chase — November 12, 2009 @ 7:37 am

  3. Rand didn’t support corporations? Corporate personhood? Greenspan, literally her disciple, got her all wrong, and she would’ve disavowed him if she’d come back during his Fed tenure?

    I gotta say, you’re the very first person I’ve ever heard say that. I’ve seen a hundred arguments about Rand, and never was there any disagreement over what she stood for, just over whether it was good or not.

    At any rate, I’m with you completely on anti-corporatism/collectivism.

    Common wisdom, social policy sense, economic sanity, any will to recover positive political freedom, and resource limitations, all call for deconcentration and decentralization.

    In the kind of society I’d like to have, we’d lop off the bloated heads of the monster, and redistribute power on a truly federalized basis, with most of it at the lower levels.

    Later in his life Jefferson’s most cherished political idea was that much power be vested at the ward level. He regretted how in framing the constitution they had focused so much on the Federal government and to a lesser extent the states (and that only on account of bottom-up pressure).

    The reason they hadn’t explicitly delegated powers to the ward and town-hall levels, which had been so important in all of their careers, was precisely because they were all so used to that. It was so much the political water they swam in that they took it for granted, with the result that once real adherence to the Constitution set in, people just focused on what was explicitly written about and neglected anything else.

    As they say, it’s never the fish who discovers water. Now that we’re dying of thirst, I reckon we know what water is, and what to do if we can discover some.

    Comment by Russ — November 12, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    • The founding fathers were bamboozled by Hamilton right from the beginning. His scheme to federalize the State war debts at par created an instant oligarchy of insiders, who bought the claims for pennies on the dollar and used the profits to buy up the Western lands and force settlors to take on mortgages. The farmers were taxed to service the bonds and the Bank of the US got the right to monetize federal tax deposits. By 1828 the Bank was dictating the outcome of the elections. Jackson won the election and executed the Bank. It was the only time the bankers lost in two hundred odd years.

      Around 1830 Rothschild sent his man August Belmont over; Belmont linked up with JP Morgan after the Civil War and put the Nation back on gold in 1879, bankrupting the entire farm population over the next seventeen years. The situation might have turned around in 1896, except that gold was discovered in South Africa. The monetization of that gold raised prices 50% in less than two years. This gave Morgan time to push through the Federal Reserve Act, for which he had his personal stooge, Woodrow Wilson. All it took was a little rich man’s panic in 1908 and the idiotic third party candidacy of Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

      It doesn’t help one bit to understand any of this. My generation was taught in school that corruption and stupidity were sins of the past. I wonder what they’re teaching these days?

      Comment by jake chase — November 12, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

      • I still need to learn more about the early stuff, though I do know that one of the private motivations of the rebels was that the British had closed off the Ohio River valley to them, and the American wealthy already had dreams, not of the heroic frontiersman, but of land speculation. The British were standing in the way of that.

        We need to figure out a way to make it help to understand it, since like you say it’s still the same old shit.

        One of these days I’m going to write a post lionizing Jackson. I’m already storing up some Jackson quotes for the occasion.

        I sometimes wonder what’s going on in schools nowadays too. I bet it’s pretty bad.

        Now that you mention it, I don’t recall seeing anything about how they’re teaching about the crash and bailout. I just wrote a note to myself to look into that.

        Comment by Russ — November 13, 2009 @ 6:11 am

  4. Jefferson and Adams were never bamboozled by Hamilton.

    Comment by Edwardo — November 12, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

    • You mean Jefferson was part of any scams from the start? I thought, for example, that he opposed the new government’s honoring the pre-revolutionary debt.

      (Or do you just mean they saw through him and therefore weren’t fooled?)

      Comment by Russ — November 13, 2009 @ 6:14 am

  5. I mean the latter. They saw right through him about as quickly as Hamlet saw through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

    Comment by Edwardo — November 13, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    • There sure are political analogues today for those tools, in the Democratic party and the MSM.

      Comment by Russ — November 13, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  6. […] of freedom.   Meanwhile the MSM is corrupt and dishonest, and financially moribund. Ad revenues, already in a free fall for years, continue to plummet. Some are even asking if blogging is “winning” a fight […]

    Pingback by Hail to Blogging! « Volatility — April 12, 2010 @ 4:03 am


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