We Only Argue the “Job Provider” Frame.

Among the dead lock certain winners at last night’s Oscars was Charles Ferguson for his documentary, “The Inside Job”. Upon winning he delivered the night’s only note of social commentary, reminding his worldwide audience of a billion that three years after the meltdown of 2008 and the beginning of the worldwide Great Recession not a single one of the architects of the casino of cards that caused the disaster has gone to jail. His comment was received with polite applause in the Kodak Theater, where I suspect more than a handful are on a first-name basis with the major (as yet unindicted) players in the crash.

After that it was quickly back to admiring the prom dresses.

The Oscar show came one night after our book club of 31 years met in Stillwater to discuss Graham Greene’s “The Third Man”. (Oh hell, why lie? We were there to drink and eat.) The post-book discussion revolved around events in Madison these past couple weeks and the “problem” of public employee benefits. (Seven of the group are or have been teachers.) Somewhere about the time one of the group was re-making the argument that the average carpenter/tradesman just can’t get his head around comfortable (but far — far — from lavish) pensions for people who chose to forgo private sector salaries in exchange for long-term benefits, I’d had enough.

Once you understand that Gov. Scott Walker’s Tea Party-pandering ploy is 99% political and 1% budgetary you kind of have to start asking yourself why we’re having this discussion — about the rights and benefits of indisputably middle-class workers — and not having a much more focused debate about the roots of the economic collapse/slump, the astonishing pooling of literally billions of dollars into the hands of pretty much the very crowd that caused it and how it is exactly we get to a point where the former debate is front and center while the other is all but ignored?

In politics as in marketing, there is an art to “framing”, by which one side cleverly asserts a need … that benefits their constituency. In this case the framing is around what is purported to be an honest debate over fiscal integrity. Please. To accept this particular “frame” or marketing strategy is essentially to agree that middle-class workers in the world’s largest and most productive economy have been and continue to be “over” compensated and that the only way to balance the common ship of finance is to require them to accept less … less affordable health care, less affordable education and fewer opportunities to improve the quality of their modest lives.

What is as ingenious as it is diabolical is that this frame succeeds in pitting, as my friend said, (middle-class) carpenters against middle-class teachers (and cops, and firefighters, etc ), while entirely exempting the crowd that benefits most from both the financial and political end-game. For short-hand purposes here we’ll refer to those fellow citizens as the “job providers”.

How this happens is sadly familiar to anyone who has paid attention to how public attention is steered and inflamed in modern America.   I’ll spare you re-re-reiteration of the mechanics of conflict-generation and anger exploitation by our enormously successful echo chamber of (misplaced) rage. For today I’ll just leave you with the reminder that while one side of the ideological split — serving the interests of the monied elites at the expense of the middle classes — has an unprecedented and unparalleled technological apparatus for inciting, building and driving their frame.

The book club discussion over how to build a counter-frame pretty much fizzled and died, largely because on a day-to-day basis your average teacher spends infinitely more time interacting with carpenters, small business owners and other middle-class types and rebutting their (recently incited) view that in the midst of The Great Recession teachers have more left of their financial lives and dreams than they do, and therefore are their adversaries. Basically, this frame is another variation on Ronald Reagan’s “welfare Cadillac”, which succeeded in distracting middle-class voters into regarding a mythical, impoverished (but lazy) black “welfare chiseler” as the primary reason why their personal economy was forever spinning its wheels.

The most misleading among many bogus assertions within the “middle class must sacrifice” frame is that “there just isn’t enough money” to provide the legally and publicly negotiated pensions and other modest benefits guaranteed to the employee class. This frame is valid only if you exempt from any part of the discussion the vast hoard of cash that has piled up in the hands, vaults and Swiss bank accounts of the “job providers” over the past generation. Were that money on the table as a part of a rational (and truly informed) discussion, the argument that would be spinning its wheels would be the one that says we can’t afford contractually obligated benefit packages for middle class workers.

But as we hear regularly, (it’s an alarm button rejoinder within this frame), to challenge that astonishing mountain of loot is to engage in “class warfare”.  I.e. those who haven’t been as entrepreneurial and “achieved” as much as the “job providers” are reviled for unfairly seeking a “redistribution of wealth” that … well … they just don’t deserve. (And please, for the moment, ignore that “most productive workers in the world” cliché, will you?)

In the context of vast pools of untouchable money is the likewise non-existent argument/frame over defense spending. With an annual budget greater than the next seven militarized nations combined common sense would demand that that money also be on the table when we get all worked up over the “fairness” of public employ pensions and slicing back Pell grants for college tuition. But it isn’t. The Pentagon budget-as-sacred cow is very much a part of the primary frame here, the constituency for which is the “job providers” living remarkably well off government contracts for radar detecting super bombers in an age of suitcase bomb terrorism.

But then common sense doesn’t have anything to do with this frame. Common  nonsense, yes.

The Kids Aren’t All Right

There was just about a half an hour of red-carpet time left before the start of last night’s Oscar telecast when ABC cut to an interview featuring  Reese Witherspoon with the “west coast editor of Vanity Fair,” a title that really does say a lot. What followed was dim-witted enough–Ms. Witherspoon was pleasant but utterly without anything to say–that I was all but tuned out when the west coast editor asked this: “So, tell us…does Oscar night ever get old?”

Now the odds of the answer to that question being either a surprise or even slightly interesting were, of course, zero.

Too bad there isn’t some way the viewers of the program could have responded instead, as I’m pretty sure the answer would have been a resounding yes.

As a matter of fact, last night’s show wore out its welcome fast…pretty much the instant a vaguely wasted-looking James Franco and the stunning but vapid Anne Hathaway came onstage for the first ever slacker hosting of the Academy Awards. Dudes, it was awful.

In what now seems to me almost another life, I used to write about the movies and even imagined myself something of a student of the Oscars. What I could never figure out back then was why an event celebrating the pinnacle of show business was invariably such a rotten bit of show business. Well, the beat goes on.

Part of the problem is that the Oscar telecast never takes advantage of its biggest asset: Access to miles and miles of film footage from this year’s movies and from those of years past. I mean, what would you rather watch: Francis Ford Coppola standing mute on stage for a round of applause…or five minutes of The Godfather? Jeff Bridges telling Jennifer Lawrence how cute she is…or a longer scene from her brilliant performance in Winter’s Bone?

I thought the low point was the presentation of the bloated list of Best Picture nominees…ten of them no less. In the interest of time but not actual interest, this was compressed into a montage of outtakes shown with the  big speech from The King’s Speech as a kind of weirdly appropriate soundtrack. Colin Firth’s disembodied words were, after all, a warning to the public that it should brace itself for something terrible.

I say, spot on sir!

Target’s Lady Gaga Problem

Live by the Gaga, die by the Gaga.

The Target boycott situation has gotten fascinating this week. Pop diva Lady Gaga is now being widely credited for pressuring Target to back off of its policy of using its customers’ dollars to play politics. From numerous LGBT publications to the The Motley Foolto a Los Angeles Times editorial, the conventional wisdom has become this: Target has sworn off politics, and Gaga forced them to do it.

But when I look closely at what Target Executives are saying, that interpretation seems to be inaccurate, or at least premature. As near as I can tell, Target has not announced a change of policy, only a change in process (i.e. the formation of a committee that will decide down the line). If Target has actually “adopted new guidelines for donations to trade associations that prohibit the use of the company’s contributions in political campaigns,” as a Los Angeles Times editorial said, I sure haven’t heard it from Target yet.

For instance, here is what Target VP of Communications Dustee Jenkins told Billboard:

Continue reading “Target’s Lady Gaga Problem”

On, Wisconsin! And Indiana … and Ohio.

One of the more reliable truisms is that “the zealots will always overreach”. It’s the question of “when” that gets funky. But pretty obviously the crowd that rode into office on a wave of inchoate, anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-government rage last November is getting slapped upside the head with something they did not expect. It goes without saying that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

As Wisconsin’s well-coordinated populist uprising spreads around the country the prospects that it’ll stop Tea Party-style revolutionaries in their tracks is not good. They do have the votes, which makes a near-term victory likely, but also Pyrrhic over a longer run of time. Like the 2012 election cycle, for example. I suspect Scott Walker and his crowd probably can figure a way to lure the AWOL Democrats back into Madison — most likely by employing the most tried-and-true gimmick of careerist ideologues … kicking the can down the road. Watch Walker shift the hot-button collective bargaining issue on to Wisconsin’s next budget bill. (Remember, this fight, like the national GOP in DC,  is over gutting the current budget). That “other budget”  has to be fought out by the end of the session this spring. Walker might be able to make the drum-banging protesters go away for a few weeks by playing faux-reasonable and leaving the emotional stuff for … six weeks from now.

But with the maelstrom they’ve created with their ham-fisted maneuvers to date, the national attention that has poured in on them, and the re-vitalized connection of the unions to the Democrats and the Democrats’ organizational machinery, there’s no way for Walker et al to sell one of their classic revisionist histories of what’s going on. Way too many people are paying attention, and just as facts have a liberal bias, a lot of focused attention on the details and the direct, “reality-based” effects of ideological jargon is never a good thing for anti-government zealots. Also, as regards the can-kicking strategy, several observers have noted that (much) better spring weather, in May as Wisconsin’s legislative session is supposed to end, only makes it more likely that more protesters will show up to get in the fun.

So did Walker and his team, with their Koch Brothers support, not see this coming? I mean, their message was “cut spending”. They repeated it ad nauseam, like those raspy audio greeting cards. Everybody knew, right? So what did they miss?

What they “missed” is that since their winning message has no specifics, no details and therefore no honest discussion of the consequences of gutting middle class programs by fiat, there was no way they could have made an informed calculation of the public response. Hell, the public really didn’t know what Walker/every other rote Tea Party-pandering conservative was talking about, other than of course that they were going to wave a sceptre and cut taxes, stop spending, reduce the deficit and provide jobs, jobs, jobs. (Third Rule of Conservative Campaigning: Once you’ve got ’em mad as hell, don’t confuse ’em with details.) Now that the public is getting the cold water wake up to what these guys are really all about, and is getting a 24/7 education in how exactly collective bargaining works, the appeal of the usual conservative bumper sticker logic is, shall we say, somewhat muted. Reality, damn it it’s a pisser.

What is also delicious, in terms of the Tea Party-ites blundering into a situation with a very high-profile scrutiny of their motivations and behind-the-scenes players is the now near universal understanding of the Wisconsin … Indiana … Ohio … Colorado  … Michigan … fight as a thoroughly political brawl, largely unrelated to the righteous claims of fiscal propriety. One analyst quite correctly explained the conflict as the Republicans over-playing their hand in a blitzkrieg attack on the primary sources of Democratic campaign funding … a scenario that could only be counter-balanced if liberals somehow made a similar assault on conservatives’ mega-church constituency, which for them is an equally reliable source of cash and organizing power. The one difference being that there are actual laws on the book — you know, in the Constitution — guaranteeing one while prohibiting the other.

But as we know, the reality of the Constitution is another one of those things the new-conservatives routinely over-talk and wildly under-think.

Checking the Checkers’ Checking

small business association I’m a fan of reporters doing regular fact checking analyses of claims made by their sources, particularly elected officials. Pat Kessler at WCCO-TV’s Reality Check and Tom Scheck at Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) are among those who do a decent job with that locally, but there should be more of it.

But who is checking the checkers? The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog did an interesting analysis of the fact checking done by the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact, which is affiliated with the St. Petersburg Times. doing business

Dr. Eric Ostermeier of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance (CSPG) at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs notes that Politifact analyses have found that Republicans lie more often than Democrats or Independents. A lot more.

But Dr. Ostermeier asks a fair question, whether this is because of Politifact’s selection bias. When asked about its selection methodology, Politifact’s Editor told C-Span: small business start up

Continue reading “Checking the Checkers’ Checking”