Page Two: Hard Filter

Has perception become reality?

Page Two
Nostalgia for a past that never was and history as one wishes it had been; a malevolent vision of government that ignores its utilitarian successes; and a conviction that government almost always fails, while private enterprise almost always succeeds: These are just some of the symptoms of one of the most widespread epidemics of our time. Another group of related symptoms includes a certainty that working Americans are overtaxed, allowing the government to lavish funds on illegal immigrants and poor (not working) Americans, and that very little of the tax money benefits actual taxpayers.

Obviously, this epidemic has more to do with problems of perception than with physical ailments. It does loosen people from the grounding of reality, allowing them to float in space. This lack of mooring often leads to panic and definitely leads to serious misunderstandings about what is going on and what is actually in their best interests. It has no simple name, but with paranoia privileged over reason, it is an insistence on the priority of personal perception over any other input.

Primarily, the disease is caused by looking at the past only through personally tinted glasses, while looking at the present through a seemingly endless series of fun-house mirrors. Obviously, because one is not dealing with what actually happened in the past or how things really are in the present, this view is often accompanied by a terrible feeling that something is radically wrong.

Evidence of all the different ways this disease manifests itself abounds – just turn on the TV. Those who oppose health care reform frequently argue that the solution to the problem is the free market; the reality is that there is no free market and no one really wants one. A free – i.e., unregulated – market leads to, among other things, periodic financial collapse, trusts dominating different areas of commerce, and the highest bid determining to whom goods are distributed.

Ancillary to this is the cry that the Obama administration is abandoning all the values that made this country great in order to force us to become just like the former Soviet Union. People fear this will happen because the government will end up controlling too much of the economy. This ignores how much of the economy the government is involved in or already controls.

Medicare and Social Security are government-run benefits programs. When we read about widespread outbreaks of contaminated food products affecting parts of the country, a significant reason is because the federal agencies that are supposed to monitor the food supply are underfunded and lack adequate legal power. If we go back to the free market, expect far more of those kinds of outbreaks, because then the only safety control the public has is litigation. There are federal safety standards in factories in order to make them safer for workers, as well as federal standards for certain products to make them safe for consumers. Emergency aid to areas struck by natural or even man-made calamities is a major area for which the government is responsible. This list goes on and on.

There are already so many ways the government is involved in your life, any number of which protect you or improve your quality of life, but because these are established and running well, they are ignored or denied. This involvement came not from traitors or a secret Red army, but in response to demands from the American public that the government addresses certain problems.

Last week, after reading yet another diatribe about how we shouldn't trust the government but put our faith in private enterprise instead, I cited the early Bush administration plan to allow people to invest some of their Social Security money in the private financial sector. The market, we were assured, only goes up over time, never down. The current financial crisis has seen values in the market drop enormously, with the possibility that some stock prices won't reach their recent peaks again for decades. And what about those who had money in areas of the financial markets that are not federally insured? Private enterprise always shines? What about Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, American International Group, Washington Mutual, and Lehman Brothers?

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission failed miserably when it came to monitoring Bernie Madoff because, despite numerous warnings, it did a minimum amount of investigation. We have to point out that most of the documented warnings came during the Bush administration, which frowned on regulation in general, declined to fund federal regulators properly, and felt the private sector should be trusted and not hampered by the government. If you argue that government doesn't work, and you run the government so that it doesn't work, then it is not hard to prove your point.

Often the absolutes of the American principles advocated by hardcore ideologues who favor less government, especially limited federal aid, can become less absolute. Recently, I saw an interview with former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. There has been considerable talk about the government's making whole the people who directly invested with Madoff. There is less enthusiasm for restitution to third-party investors: those who put money into investment groups that in turn invested with Madoff (whether or not the investors knew this). Tancredo has been such a champion of small government for so long that he is like a knight with sword in hand, wielding it against the giant government. In this case, however, he argues that not only is a government bailout not aid, but in this case it should cover who invested with a third party that then invested with Madoff. Why? Because this is his situation:

It seems then that when the government helps you out, that is only because you fully deserve to be helped out; when the government helps out anyone else, just call it communism.

Pixels Toward a Picture: A Series – Collect Them All

The following items are each of enough interest in themselves that they are probably worth considering. Over time, a series of these collectible pixels will be offered; when finally added together, they should suggest a much broader picture.

1) Maybe 25 years ago, I was driving in Boston, listening to the radio. One of the last items on the evening's news was about how storms had swamped a large canoe in some island nation, resulting in the deaths of all 30 islanders aboard. Instead of thinking about how tragic this was, I thought of it instead as a piece of information. The reason I was hearing about this terrible accident, driving through a rainy late afternoon in Boston, was not because the event itself was in any way significant. This is not to say that it wasn't; in many lives, it was undoubtedly of the most significance. But I was hearing about it because of incredible advances in technology – in this case related to global communications, which had effectively shrunk the world to such a degree that this accident would be more than local news.

If it had been two decades earlier, the odds are that this accident would never have been reported beyond where it occurred. One can dispute that by saying the story might have reached a news bureau. Now, when major newspapers began establishing international news bureaus, I don't know. Before news bureaus, the main sources of more obscure international news were individual journalists working in different places around the globe. They were probably supplemented by other entities, such as churches, that participated in sharing information internationally. This story might have ended up as an item in newspapers or in newsmagazines (Time and Newsweek then, Harper's Weekly three-quarters of a century earlier) – but only weeks, if not months, later. Instead, I heard about it the day after it happened.

Such tragic accidents have been occurring, to one degree or another, back to the beginnings of mankind. Certainly, in the couple of centuries prior to the broadcast, there had been any number of incidents similar to the drownings, involving the loss of fewer or even more lives. There was nothing especially unique or significant about the incident. Yet in the intimacy of my car, driving through traffic during a rain on an already dark late afternoon in Boston, it carried weight. It was not special weight or even unique weight, but, despite its lack of greater meaning, the item made the world seem like a darker, more inhospitable, dangerous place.

2) Early 20th century newspaper crime reporters in New York City were often stars of their publications (at the time there were six or seven major daily newspapers published in NYC), the kinds of stories they covered being very popular. Within the police department, the way information on crimes was conveyed was that incidents were written up on notes that were placed into cubbyholes (how this system was organized overall, I have no idea). Reporters would look through these notes, following up and reporting on the more interesting cases.

Being bored and cynical in the way most veteran reporters are bored and cynical, one of the reporters, who would later become a prominent muckraker, suggested to a fellow reporter a new way to amuse themselves. (I think it was Lincoln Steffens who made the suggestion.)

His idea was that instead of just reporting on the items of interest, why not report on every piece of paper filed into a cubbyhole? In other words, at the time the media filter, so to speak, for every minor and major criminal activity in New York City was the reporters themselves. Based on their experience, as well as their awareness of what concerned and interested the public and their publications, they chose what to cover.

The two began reporting on every note in every cubbyhole in the police department. Since they were doing this, reporters at other papers, in order to keep up, had to do it as well. Nothing in terms of criminal activity or public policing changed at all. Yet, because of the changed coverage, citizens were convinced that New York City was in the grips of a terrible crime wave. The response, immediate and fearful, was a demand for action from the police.  

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