Fake Science and Fake Reality on Television

Mermaids: The Body FoundAre mermaids real? Well, they certainly were in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — the best film in the series. But if you are a viewer of the supposedly science oriented Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, well, you might think they actually existed once in the real world, and it is only because of a government cover-up that it isn’t in all the papers. Because that is what the 90 minute long “documentary” Mermaids: The Body Found disclosed. I know this because my father came to me in a state of confusion and agitation after having seen it. And how could he know it wasn’t real? After all, they didn’t show it on History Channel.

The film was designed to deceive. According to Brad Newsome at The Sydney Morning Herald, “Here’s a new low in supposedly educational television. It’s a fake feature-length documentary that doesn’t ‘fess up to being fiction until a disclaimer pops up at the end. Until then we have what looks like a slick documentary about the discovery of mermaids and a conspiracy to keep them hidden.” People of my father’s generation generally think that when people go to the trouble of making films, they are at least trying to be honest. They don’t go in for that whole postmodern Blair Witch Project nonsense.

I remember when I was a graduate student, I was in the habit of putting up the covers of Weekly World News on my office wall. This was around the time that Bat Boy first showed up and I just loved it. One time, I had up a cover with some sea monster that had allegedly been found in Lake Michigan. One evening, our regular janitor saw the cover and became very concerned. He said, “I used to live on Lake Michigan and I never saw anything like that.” I tried to explain to him that I didn’t think it was real, but the fact that the tabloid looked real left him unconvinced.

After that, I stopped putting the covers up in my office. It had never occurred to me that people would actually think they reported the truth. And I remember clearly watching television movies as a child and thinking that certain apocalyptic movies were telling the truth about something that was really going on. It concerned me a great deal. So I don’t want to do that to other naive people. But the thing about those dramas was that (1) they were about actual things that were going on, but in a more dramatic setting (think: The China Syndrome); and (2) they weren’t trying to deceive anyone. But that clearly isn’t the case now.

Another part of the problem is that channels now have pretty much no relationship to what they nominally offer. Last year, Ross Pomeroy wrote, Dear Discovery Channel: Less Pseudoscience, More Discovering, Please. In it, he noted, “Discovery Channel’s slogan is brief and to the point: ‘The World Is Just Awesome.’ It’s just not awesome enough for them, apparently.” Back in 2011, PhD Comics summed up the problem nicely:

Science Programming

It’s all pathetic. And even worse, is the state of “reality television.” At least Mermaids: The Body Found was well done. They properly noted that the mermaids (if they existed) would be more like half human and half dolphin rather than human-fish. And the CGI was quite good. But “reality television” is now a big deal because it is cheap to produce. People put up with the fact that it is really pretty boring because of the heightened excitement that it is real. The problem, of course, is that actual reality is even more boring than “reality television.” So we end up with scandals like the fact that Alaskan Bush People aren’t even full-time residents of Alaska.

It’s not just in politics where Americans will accept total crap. It appears that that Americans will accept total crap in all aspects of their lives. I was never much of a fan of I Love Lucy, but there is no doubt that it is far better than the majority of stuff people happily pay to get pumped into their houses. Thank God for Bob’s Burgers, or I would think all hope was lost.

The Vague Meaning of the CPI

Dean BakerThe final issue has to do with the meaning of a cost of living index. The underlying idea is that we are supposed to have enough money to buy a basket of quality adjusted goods and services over time that will leave us equally well off through time. An explicit assumption is that the physical and natural infrastructure have not changed. This is seriously problematic.

It means, for example, that in 2015 we would be able to buy the same phone and television as we did in 1979 and we would be as well off. There is no provision for the cost of buying a cell phone and paying for the service, nor the cost of the internet. We are supposed to believe that a person would be as well off without internet access in 2015 as they were in 1979. That doesn’t seem very plausible.

—Dean Baker
Quick Thoughts on Wage Stagnation

Why German Believe Fantasies About Greece

Simon Wren-LewisI am well aware that I often appear to be anti-German. That’s not entirely an incorrect assessment. Germany reminds me very much of the United States. Both are countries filled to the brim with undeserved self-righteousness. They say to anyone who will listen, “If only you were more like us, you would be fine — or at least better.” I hate this attitude in individuals and when I see it in countries, it frightens me. But is it really the case that Germany is behaving so badly toward Greece because of their pigheaded self-delusions about the German work ethic and frugality? Let’s say that it is at least a bit more complicated.

On Tuesday, Simon Wren-Lewis wrote, Why Germany Wants Rid of Greece. The title itself reminds me of World War I. There was a sense of relief among the power elite of Europe once the war came. Up to then, there had been all this messy and difficult negotiation. And as always, the power elite don’t like to negotiate. They are of the “all or nothing” persuasion (given that they are used to getting “all”). And there is little doubt that Germany would like to get get rid of Greece, as though that will get rid of the problem, and even more, as though that will be good for Germany.

Wren-Lewis confirmed what I’ve long thought:

When I recently visited Berlin, it quickly became clear the extent to which Germany had created a fantasy story about Greece. It was an image of Greeks as a privileged and lazy people, who kept on taking “bailouts” while refusing to do anything to correct their situation. I heard this fantasy from talking to people who were otherwise well informed and knowledgeable about economics.

The reason I’ve thought this was so is because people over here repeat that kind of nonsense. In 2011, Thomas Friedman wrote, “Germans are now telling Greeks: ‘We’ll loan you more money, provided that you behave like Germans in how you save, how many hours a week you work, how long a vacation you take, and how consistently you pay your taxes.'” David Brook similarly wrote, “[Nations like Germany and the US] believe in a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible.” Far be it for these two over-paid pundits to actually do a little research when they can just base whole articles on stereotypes. Matt Yglesias responded with facts, Are Greeks Lazy? He noted:

It’s true that Germans and Greeks work very different amounts, but not in the way you expect. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average German worker put in 1,429 hours on the job in 2008. The average Greek worker put in 2,120 hours.

Wren-Lewis has an interesting argument to explain why it is that the Germans can believe such patently false things. He says that Germans have never liked Keynsian economics. They prefer marginal economic ideas like expansionary austerity, because it goes along with how they see themselves. But Greece represents a great problem to this. Despite what you will hear on the right, Greece has done almost exactly what the Troika has demanded for the last five years. The result: economic catastrophe with unemployment above 25%. The Germans have only two choices here: either admit that their economic theories are bunk or blame the patient. We know what their choice is.

Immigration Demagoguery Gets Big

Donald TrumpBeing here in the Bay Area, it has been really sad to watch so many people demagogue Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who apparently killed Kathryn Steinle. The event is a tragedy, of course: a young woman is dead. Lopez-Sanchez was an undocumented immigrant. So there has been all kinds of wringing of hands over the fact that San Francisco is a sanctuary city. As if that had anything to do with this crime. And now, Donald Trump has grabbed the case, after having seen what a little undocumented immigrant scapegoating can do to one’s poll numbers in the Republican presidential primary. What’s interesting about this is how it pulls back the veil on what all this talk of “illegal immigration” really means.

Using an incident in which an undocumented immigrant kills someone as indicative of the threat of all undocumented immigrants is the very definition of racism. Now before anyone gets down on me by claiming that this is not a racial category, let me be clear: race itself is a made up concept. Race is a system for categorizing a certain group of people who another group of people want to oppress. Sure, it can be based upon skin color or region, but the truth is that it can be anything. There is no reason why the blue eyed people couldn’t decide that brown eyed people are inferior and should thus be enslaved. So it is meaningless that “undocumented immigrant” or “illegal immigrant” don’t refer to people who look the same.

Hillary ClintonOr course, the truth is that we all do know that these evil undocumented immigrants look the same. We are talking about Mexicans — or at least Latinos. That’s as clear as the fact that the “welfare queen” was black. (Even though she wasn’t really black.) But it doesn’t much matter. That just makes it easier to instill hatred and fear — the weapons of the demagogue.

What we’ve got here is the real nature of racism. This is why ideas like Twice as Good don’t work. The undocumented community can never be good enough, because people like Donald Trump are more than happy to use someone like Lopez-Sanchez to tar all immigrants. This has been going on for centuries here in America. The only thing that changes is the targets. Except for blacks: that’s a constant; that never changes.

What is so remarkable is that every time racism rears its ugly head, it always has a different justification. No person in polite company will admit that thinking that there is anything wrong with African Americans genetically. But former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan finds things wrong them them culturally. And so it is with Trump, who has no problem with Mexicans — just the awful ones who come here. So really, Trump’s problem is with statistics: we are getting a skewed sample of Mexicans.

Now Trump is demagoguing a second murder. Jamiel Andre Shaw was apparently murdered by Pedro Espinoza. This is a big deal, because Espinoza was the right age back in 2008 to have been a Dreamer. Of course, there was no such program at that point. And as Steve M noted at No More Mister Nice Blog:

Espinoza had a criminal history — one report says he had “an extensive juvenile record along with one adult conviction.” He was released from jail on a gun charge the day before he committed the murder. In establishing the DACA program, the Obama administration said that in order to be eligible one must “have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor, or more than three misdemeanors of any kind” and “not pose a threat to national security or public safety.”

Thus: Espinoza would not have qualified for the program. So he wasn’t a Dreamer in fact, and in the alternate universe where Obama became president in 2000, he wouldn’t have been a Dreamer. But the point is not about Espinoza at all. What the conservatives are getting at — and Donald Trump in a big way — is that there must be people who would be Dreamers who will commit murders. Therefore, it’s a terrible program. And since there are undocumented immigrants who commit murders, all of them must be bad.

This is, of course, entirely the wrong way to think about this. If we look at the statistics, we find that undocumented immigrants commit less crime than American citizens. But this doesn’t matter in this discussion. What matters is that Donald Trump has two of “those people” he can use to demagogue this issue. And he’s hardly alone; I haven’t been too happy about Hillary Clinton on the issue of sanctuary cities. It’s all horrible. But maybe we shouldn’t blame the politicians. This kind of simplistic thinking is apparently all that Americans can appreciate.

Also: we’re a bunch of racists.

Morning Music: Flaco Jiménez

Flaco Jiménez: the New Face of TerrorErik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money brought my attention to this new terror threat, “More than two hours. More than 30 police, fire, and rescue workers. And more than enough police cars and big trucks to widen the eyes of three dozen youngsters in day care, all to investigate a suspicious package that turned out to be… an accordion.” Loomis blames it all — quite rightly, I think — on previous generations of accordionists like Frankie Yankovic (who is shockingly not Weird Al’s father).

Loomis asked the question that I think is on everyone’s mind, “Will the police arrest Flaco Jiménez for being too awesome on the accordion?” We will have to see. If not, perhaps Donald Trump will go after him. Regardless, I thought we would listen to a little of his music today. Here he is performing with the Dutch band Rowwen Hèze doing the Rocco Granata song “Marina”:

Anniversary Post: Fourteenth Amendment

Fourteenth AmendmentOn this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. A good case can be made that the US really began on this date. Because the amendment fundamentally changed our Constitution. Before it, the government was largely hamstrung by the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment allowed the United States to become a modern democracy. But it would take some time. As Ian Millhiser documents in Injustices, even into the 20th century, the curious reading of the amendment by the Supreme Court, meant that it was used primarily to oppress the very people the amendment was intended to protect.

What’s interesting about the Fourteenth Amendment today is that, in general, conservatives hate it. In this regard, I’m very interested in Section 4, which reads in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” It’s interesting because I remember in 2005 that Bush decided to “spend” his alleged political capital on something that few of the 50.7% of the people thought they had voted for: privatizing Social Security.

So Bush went around talking about how there wasn’t a Social Security Trust Fund. Instead, it was “just IOUs.” It’s a totally bizarre claim. To start with, cash is also “just IOUs.” But more to the point, Bush wanted to transfer a huge part of Social Security to private investment accounts. That would have meant that instead of having US bonds, we would have had stock certificates. So we again would have had “just IOUs.” The difference would be that governments IOUs are considered the safest investment in the world, and stocks are, well, not quite as safe.

The broader point is that Bush was doing exactly what the Fourteenth Amendment said no one should do. But from his perspective, it didn’t much matter. Sure, the Fourteenth Amendment was a Republican thing, but that was the liberal Republican Party. Other than occasionally mentioning Lincoln (because now even conservatives admit that slavery was wrong), the modern Republican Party is cut off from its past. More recently, Republicans have been calling for an end to automatic citizenship for people born here — Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. But I’m not naive; if the Fourteenth Amendment justified something that Republicans wanted to do, they would be quoting it — selectively.

But this day in 1868 was a very good day because the Fourteenth Amendment transformed the nation. I just wish conservatives would read it.