Last year, I wrote an article that got quite a lot of attention thanks to a tweet by Max Blumenthal, News Bias Is a Choice to Lack Diversity. The article was about the implicit bias in the press because the reporters are all of the upper-middle and upper classes — cut off from the worlds of middle and lower class workers. I wrote, “This is why business reporters seem to only find news about the management side of business interesting. They don’t have any friends who are in labor unions.” The article got enough attention that Matt Yglesias read it and responded that reporters do known people in unions because most newspapers are unionized. Note the change from “are friends with” to “know.”
It’s a telling comment. I like Yglesias’ work very much. But he is blind to the interests of lower class workers who were so very well represented by unions in the decades before he was born. And he’s very much typical of a particular group of “data journalists” most symbolized by Vox. Again, I read Vox every day — they put out great work. But despite the publication’s claim that it is all about data, it is constrained as much by ideology as every other news outlet. It is just that their brand of soft neoliberalism is easily mistaken for the truth.
Erik Loomis over at Lawyers, Guns & Money has been on this beat for a while. I first noticed it with an article earlier this month, What Does Dylan Matthews Think The Worst New York Times Article Published in the Last Decade Is? It turned out that it was article by Paul Theroux, The Hypocrisy of “Helping” the Poor. Basically, the Vox senior correspondent thought that it was wrong — Really wrong! — to complain about globalization hurting poor people in America when it was helping poor people in Bangladesh.
Matthews original complaint was just a tweet. Now, two articles have been published attacking the original article. Loomis has all the details, More on Paul Theroux, the Greatest Monster in Known History for Caring About American Workers. And he dives pretty deeply into the subject of the Washington data journalists’ ideological dysfunction. It is a mindless acceptance of globalization as a Good Thing™. We all know that, all things equal, more trade is a good thing. Thus, any given worker complaining about their troubles should just shut up.
This is almost literally true of Annie Lowery. A woman in Theroux’s article was complaining about how the Clinton Foundation did all this work in Africa, “Don’t they realize our people need help?” To which Lowery responded, “Not in the way that people in Zimbabwe do, lady. Not even close.” It’s a shocking display of class based disdain. As if a paraplegic can’t complain so long as there are quadriplegics in the world. And as Loomis points out, it shows that they approach the problem of poverty “from 30,000 feet.” They have no connections to these people, just as their analyse of Uber is all about them getting more convenience in their urbane lives and not about struggling low-middle class drivers.
Jeff Spross at The Week provided a far more expansive view of the issue, Us against them? Why Globalization Doesn’t Have to Pit American Workers Against the World’s Poor. Basically, he’s making a Dean Baker kind of argument: globalization hurts the poor in America because our government has made it that way; we can have globalization that works for everyone. But what I want to focus on is Spross’ criticism of the “American preference for ‘absolute’ poverty measures.”
The reason I bring it up is because of this great lecture by Richard Wilkinson, where he looks at economic inequality. Between countries, inequality doesn’t seem to have much effect on broadly defined health measures. But it has a clear and large effect within countries. Clearly, this is a study only of advanced economies, and Zimbabwe is seriously messed up. But the idea that poor people in Mississippi should just shut up because other people are doing worse outside the country 10,000 miles away misses the whole point.
My takeaway from this is just how callous we all are. I don’t believe that the Vox crowd really cares any more about the people in Zimbabwe than they do the people in Mississippi. They certainly don’t have any experience with the people who are suffering there. But it is really the fact that having a callous disregard for the suffering in Mississippi and a deep concern for the suffering in Zimbabwe pushes their existing belief that globalization is a Good Thing™. All of the neoliberal data journalists should listen to Lowery’s own inadvertent wisdom, “The reality, you’ll be surprised to hear, is more complicated.”
After I wrote this, I noticed that the brilliant Matt Bruenig wrote, The Muddled Globalization Debate. He looks at the issue in an economic way and notes, “The fact that goods cost 10% less than they would in the alternative doesn’t help someone whose income is 30% less than the alternative.” It gets to the same issue, which is just that Lowery and company are clueless about the effects of globalization on actual people. They can wave a hand and say that there are things we could do to minimize the harm, but the fact remains that we don’t. It’s like I wrote earlier this year, No Trade Deals Until Our Economy Is Fixed. I’m not interested in trade deals even if they do increase GDP as long as the vast majority of the gains all go to the top.