My Notes on Paul Krugman’s Blog Post: On Partisanship, Parasites, and Polarization | Political Pyramids on Blog#42

My Notes on Paul Krugman’s Blog Post: On Partisanship, Parasites, and Polarization | Political Pyramids on Blog#42

In, On Partisanship, Parasites, and Polarization, Paul Krugman writes about the mix of snake oil sales, media, and politics on the right, and adds in some political science and economic theory.

First, what is Olson’s Logic of Collective Action? According to the Wikipedia, it is:

The book challenged accepted wisdom in Olson’s day that:

  1. if everyone in a group (of any size) has interests in common, then they will act collectively to achieve them; and
  2. in a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannize and exploit the minority.

The book argues instead that individuals in any group attempting collective action will have incentives to “free ride” on the efforts of others if the group is working to provide public goods. Individuals will not “free ride” in groups that provide benefits only to active participants.

Pure public goods are goods that are non-excludable (i.e. one person cannot reasonably prevent another from consuming the good) and non-rivalrous (one person’s consumption of the good does not affect another’s, nor vice versa). Hence, without selective incentives to motivate participation, collective action is unlikely to occur even when large groups of people with common interests exist.”

What are examples of public goods? Public parks, as opposed to the national variety which charge an entry fee, are a public good. Air, public education, law enforcement, and waste services in some municipalities are all public goods. We all breathe air and everyone making use of that air doesn’t affect the ability of others to do the same. Public education, primary and secondary schools, is less clear cut in that it is compulsory (unless the child attends a private school or is homeschooled where not disallowed by law), and in situations in which there are too many consumers in one school, the value of the “good” declines. That said, education inherently benefits the public even when it is unevenly distributed.

Championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the 2016 election cycle introduced a new collective effort in this area with the expansion of public education by calling on state universities and community colleges to be made free for the student. Some states have answered his call and adopted the policy, at least in part.

Public education, no matter which grades, is paid for by the taxes we pay. When Senator Sanders was proposing to make college free, he also proposed paying for his policy through a small transaction tax on Wall Street.

The news we read, watch, and listen to are not a public good. With the failure of so many beloved news publications and the loss of over 10,000 journalism jobs in recent years, there have been some good proposals that might turn media into a public good. Some organizations, in fact, are just that. ProPublica is one U.S. media organization that is a non-profit. The Associated Press is another example. National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service, NPR and PBS, are classic examples of a public good. They are almost exclusively funded by viewers. Most media we consume, however, is for profit.

Network television makes its money from advertising, as do newspapers, cable television and radio networks. Network TV and cable also sell blocs of time to companies who run infomercials during off-peak times. Celebrities will often appear in these infomercials to sell anything from cosmetics to kitchen gadgets, reverse mortgages and dog leashes.

Enter Krugman’s discussion of Ben Shapiro and hawking supplements:

“So a lot of political action is driven by people trying to shape policy in a way that benefits them personally. But what the Shapiro/brain pills story drives home to me is that there’s another important factor in our current political scene: the use of political action as a marketing ploy, by people out to make a buck selling stuff that has little to do with politics per se.”

Had the supplement advertisement been a part of some pyramid scheme, I would have been offended. That should be a red flag to anyone who comes into contact with ads or marketing emails. Is it a surprise that Shapiro is trying to monetize his online presence? He no longer has his full time job at Breitbart and doesn’t seem to be practicing law. It’s one way to earn an income, along with what the ads on his website and podcast sponsors pay. Whether you label Shapiro a journalist (by virtue of his column-writing), he is one of a multitude of public figures without a full-time cable TV gig. As for right-wing websites selling stuff… The president sells stuff, still…

The vast majority of the talking heads we see on TV get paid for their appearances. They sell opinion and analysis for the most part. Some, as we saw during the general election, were there to flog their candidates’ talking points. Is that more or less harmful than hawking amino acids, ruffage and caffeine in a capsule?

The top opinion writers are paid by their newspapers for the columns they write. Many of them also write books from which they derive income, in addition to what they earn from TV appearances. Is that more glamorous than hawking vitamins from a website? I suppose it is.

Is hawking merchandise some sort of insidious conservative thing? I suppose one way to look at it is to recognize that Republicans get noticed more for cashing in on their profiles, probably because they’re more ostentatious about it than liberals. But I really wonder whether they do so more than former Democratic officials or left-leaning journalists.

A lot of former Obama officials have gone on to the lobbying industry. A permanent fixture on CNN during the 2015-16 cycle, was former Clinton alum, Paul Begala. He heads a SuperPAC. He also gets paid for appearing on-air. The same is true of former Obama chief of staff and current CNN commentator, David Axelrod. Former Vice President Biden’s chief economist, Jared Bernstein, appears on MSNBC and CNBC as an analyst, writes analysis pieces for the Washington Post, and maintains a completely ad-free blog. He also writes books.

Former George H.W. Bush Secretary of Education and George W. Bush Drug Czar, William Bennett, went on to monetize the cachet he earned in government by going into the online charter school business scam. Republicans, sadly, aren’t alone in this particular type of venture. Former Obama alums can be found in similarly distasteful endeavors, as reported by Politico and other outlets at the time:

“Teachers unions are girding for a tough fight to defend tenure laws against a coming blitz of lawsuits — and an all-out public relations campaign led by former aides to President Barack Obama.

The Incite Agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, will lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended ferociously. “

I suppose it’s more dignified on the face of it, but in the end, money is involved in all cases. In the latter case, those who are harmed are children and their teachers and you can be sure that both Gibbs and LaBolt knew it.

Is Ben Shapiro the worst of the Ferengi among the media and the new pundit class of former politicians and government officials we see on TV? I am offended when people seek to profit from their tenure in government by taking away from those who already have so little. Ben Shapiro selling supplements? I don’t care.

My beef with Ben Shapiro, whether one considers him a member of the media or a part of the political lobbying wing of the neoconservative machine, is not so much what he’s selling to his customers as much as it is what he’s giving away for free. His bile-soaked blatherings cause far more harm than whatever quantities of supplements he manages to sell.

The New York Times publishes health-related articles, at times by authors who have upcoming books on the topic. It isn’t rare for those articles to express a very critical point of view. In the last few years, for example, the Times has published a slew of articles critical of the Gluten Free diet, some even going so far as to call it dangerous for people who don’t have Celiac Disease. But we are learning that it isn’t only Celiacs who derive a benefit from the diet. People who have other GI issues are finding relief. A public good, in this case, would be to publish columns that remind readers on this diet that there are certain supplements they need to take, to replace what they lose when they eliminate gluten.

What’s sorely missing from public discourse is a reminder of the meaning of civics, or doing things for the community or nation out of altruism. Sure, some public goods end up with the public because some interest group wanted it and it automatically becomes widely available, but that isn’t all there is to the topic.

Politics has become a direct marketing campaign, whether it is the parties themselves, candidates, local party apparatuses, grassroots organizations working for this or that faction of a party. Then you have the lobbyists, organizers, advertising, and PR agencies… The list of ways to make money off of politics is almost endless.

Krugman could have done a critique of Shapiro’s views on any number of issues and left it at that. In the corrupt society we live in, there is no shortage of former officials who are profiting on the backs of those they claimed to protect. As for the entire discussion of public good, it was totally superfluous and has no bearing on Ben Shapiro’s activities. The U.S. media isn’t a public good. It is an assortment of competing for-profit businesses. Some of the largest non-profit news organizations sell all kinds of tchatchkes to survive. You can buy videos and all kinds of merchandise from PBS. Some for profit news organizations sell copies of art they publish, as does The New Yorker.

The news we read and watch aren’t ours to go back and refer to any time we like. Try and find all of the Election 2016 Democratic debates. You’ll find many have vanished from YouTube for licensing reasons. They’re the property of whatever network broadcast them and not the public’s.

As for who to blame for polarization? I blame Fox, Breitbart and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine for the disinformation of red America. I blame cable TV, all of it, for the polarization. The verbal pugilism on CNN, CNBC, Fox and MSNBC are polarizing. The hour long shows full of propaganda, rearranging of historical facts, conspiracy theories and the ad-nauseam repetition, are polarizing. Here’s an easy test. Stop watching cable for two weeks. Then go back to it. I guarantee you’ll miss the two weeks of quiet time.

Knowing all this should put a new perspective on the old Winston Churchill quote, history is written by the victors.

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