Decoding the news

The Internet gives us access to lots of different news sources, but sometimes they all look the same. Even when the stories aren’t outright copies of the same news release or distributed story, they repeat one another’s misstatements and clichés. The “Fiscal Cliff” affair has provided at least two good examples. One is the practically universal agreement that raising taxes and lowering spending constitutes going off a fiscal cliff. I’m not happy about tax increases, but the federal government has been spending vastly more than it’s been taking in for decades. The current national debt is about 16 terabucks. We’ve seen from the experience of several European countries that this isn’t sustainable; it has to end in devaluation of the currency, default, or massive policy reversals. If anything constitutes going off a cliff, it’s the continuation of the policies that continue to pile up the debt. Yet the news media parrot the words “fiscal cliff” as if it’s self-evident that reducing the credit-spending spree would have been an irresponsible, disastrous course of action.

The (inadequate) resolution has been to raise taxes on the “wealthy,” according to many news outlets. This is an outright misstatement. The tax increases are based on income, not wealth, applying to households with incomes above $450,000. Some people may be making this much for the first time, after years of work to build up a business. $450,000 doesn’t make somebody “wealthy.” Conversely, people with lots of money but little current income may not be affected by the tax. It’s easier to stir up hostility against “the wealthy” than against “people with high incomes,” and it gives more of a sense that the target is someone at a safe distance.

To get past the distortions the news media feed us, we have to think about what’s being said and go past the standard sources. Looking at commentary from a variety of viewpoints helps. This can cause discomfort and annoyance, and often these sources just provide a different set of distortions, but you can extract more signal from several different noisy sources than from one.

I find Twitter a useful source of news links, and I’ve created a list of Tweets from several international news sources. These help to turn up news that otherwise gets buried and to provide more perspectives. An assortment of RSS feeds also helps.

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