Archive for November, 2009

The gutter press

Gawker savages a Sunday Times piece that claims New York City has lost its edge. Gawker’s Foster Kamer gives about a dozen reasons why New York City is superior to London. The ensuing discussion takes place on a pretty elite level, a small coterie of people who’ve lived/worked/studied in both NY and London and can intelligently offer comments on the merits of Beckett on the West End versus Beckett on Broadway, for instance.

One line of Kamer’s critique of London stood out as particularly insightful. Kramer remarks of London,

Your tabloid newspapers make the New York Post look like The Paris Review.

Now, I know American journalism has its problems. Some are just insoluble issues of journalistic ethics writ large, like Okrent’s Law, “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.” There are issues around anonymous sourcing, someone commented the New York Times could be renamed “government officials say,” criticizing the practice of uncritically repeating anonymously sourced information. The management of relationships with sources also poses problems, for instance profiles of administration figures that are essentially flattering puff pieces used to curry favor with potentially valuable sources (beat sweeteners) seem like skating pretty close to quid pro quo to me. There’re numerous other issues, the news becoming infotainment, or political journalism covering the horserace aspect of politics rather than the policy issues, or the economic problems of journalism.

But compared to the UK, the US media landscape seems positively healthy. The tabloids’ sensational screams are more consequential in the UK than any tabloid in the US. The largest circulation papers in the US and UK are fundamentally different types of publication. In the US the serious papers beat out the tabloids, in the UK the tabloids beat out the serious papers. The largest circulation papers in the US are the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and then the Daily News and New York Post (Wikipedia). You get pretty far into the list before you reach a tabloid. In the UK the largest circulation papers are The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Star, the Daily Express, then the Times, the Financial Times, and the Guardian (Wikipedia). Serious newspapers pop up here and there in the UK list, but they do not dominate.

More important than circulation figures of top papers, who is capable of driving the news coverage of other media outlets? In the US the New York Times dominates. You can form a pretty accurate forecast of what will be in the network newscasts by reading the New York Times. The Times and papers of its caliber play an important role in steering the journalism community towards the more serious events of the day. Journalists from these upper tier outlets will be the people who appear on Washington Week in Review, Charlie Rose, the Sunday political talk shows, and other US media. In the UK the journalistic landscape is less hierarchical; editors and journalists from the tabloids appear elsewhere in the UK media. It is not that I have something against the tabloid journalists personally, but the whole ethos of the tabloid newspaper is distinct from that of the more staid news organizations.

Tabloids are sensational. They will pay for stories; they will dig through divorces and drug addictions. They will tell you about the sex lives of celebrities, or non-celebrities, whatever sells. The screaming headline need not correspond to the body of the story; oftentimes there are significant nuances that are bulldozed by the headline, or the story itself. The prejudices of the paper are brought to the fore, there isn’t even a gesture towards objectivity or fairness. When you simplify and remove all the caveats, you get a substantially different tenor of news. You get hyperventilating mirroring the worst excesses of bad science journalism, PhD Comics’ excellent skewering here and here.
This outraged coverage overshadows the occasional worthy tabloid story or campaign.

Given the failings of other parts of the British media landscape, I’m thankful for the BBC.


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Deterritorialization – political science-speak for the decreasing relevance of borders. In discussions of globalization, it is possible to overstate the mobility of goods and people in this new age of connectivity. Living outside the US, I see various barriers impeding progress towards further mobility. Possibly trivial, but outside the US, Hulu, Youtube, and Dailymotion country limitations are a nuisance, while inside the US, no access to BBC iPlayer. Given rights restrictions, the Great Firewall of China is not the only impediment to the free flow of information online. Internet gripes aside, still far more important roadblocks to mobility persist.

Another barrier, the exceptionally silly US proposal for a tourism tax. As a consequence, others nations are likely to impose retaliatory taxes on Americans going abroad (CT, FT). Nicknamed the Mickey Tax due to the advocacy of the Disney Corporation, the proposal would require visitors to the US to pay $15 and register their visit three days prior to departing for the US. Five dollars would go towards security measures, $10 would go towards a $200 million tourism promotion fund. As the EU Ambassador to the US said,

The proposed $10 penalty for entering the United States is being sold as a ‘tourist promotion’ measure, but only in Alice in Wonderland could a penalty be seen as promoting the activity on which it is imposed. (FT)

I would add, random administrative fees are also a nuisance; do we really need a $6 administrative fee for entry into the US via Mexico or Canada? Do we really need to nickel and dime visitors and visa-seekers this way?

A friend from East Asia who’s a PhD student in Europe described the US visa application process to me: Nightmare. She would like to attend a conference in the US, which is fine as long as she applies two dozen years in advance and is willing to give the US her firstborn child, then maybe, just maybe the US will let her in. Of course, the US is not the only offender. A friend from Eastern Europe, an EU member state mind you, got to the final stages of jobs at two Brussels consultancies only to be stymied at the last minute by work permit rules. In one instance, she had already received a job offer. Yet another frustrating nightmare (when accession was negotiated various Western European states decided to phase in the bedrock EU principle of free movement of people as applied to the new Eastern European members). These women have three masters degrees and speak five languages between them. Why all these hurdles?

The US quota for skilled worker visas (H-1B) is as silly as taxing tourists for daring to visit the US. To their discredit, the Tories would like to impose a similar annual cap on UK immigration. In an exchange with Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Bill Gates pointed out that skilled workers are going to be hired; it is just a matter of where. Rohrabacher commented that the goal shouldn’t be to replace American B students with Indian A students, Gates replied,

And what I’ve said here is that when we bring in these world-class engineers, we create jobs around them. …so the B and C students are the ones who get those jobs around these top engineers. And if these top engineers are forced to work, say in India, we will hire the B and C students from India to work around them. (Transcript)

Beyond lifting the quota on skilled worker visas, the US should take affirmative steps to recruit and retain the highly skilled. In an age of connectivity and competing knowledge economies, the government need act as an especially insightful human resources department. As Thomas Friedman suggests, we should be,

stapling green cards to the diplomas of each of these foreign-born PhD’s. …any foreign student who gets a PhD in our country – in any subject – should be offered citizenship. I want them. The idea that we actually make it difficult for them to stay is crazy. (NYT)

I’d go further than Friedman and offer permission to study or work in the US to graduates of top universities – wherever the university. There are numerous rankings of world universities that could be used as guidelines as to which schools should qualify. The US ratifying the Lisbon Convention, recognizing qualifications across borders, would be a good start (the US is already has already signed). Also, I’d want to get rid of visa-related hassles, like fees and limitations of spouses working; eschew red tape, streamline the visa process. Ideally for prospective workers, this systematic dismantling of barriers to labor movement would be a reciprocal enterprise – I’d imagine the OECD (or ILO) working to lower barriers. Even if undertaken unilaterally, breaking down these barriers would exploit – in the best sense of the word – the US comparative advantage of being a fairly tolerant, open society. President Obama, tear down these walls.

(Perhaps more on the unskilled or undocumented later.)

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Happy families

“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy

Saying Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Tokyo Sonata is about a dysfunctional family is like saying King Lear is about a dysfunctional family – an accurate description of sorts, but wholly inadequate. While watching the film I had two visions of the type of film this was, and it declared simple my first vision and upended my second. My first vision was that Tokyo Sonata offered a critique of patriarchy, the resonant feminist refrain that patriarchy devours all, men and women alike. Patriarchy traps both sexes in roles that are ultimately destructive to individuality. It’s as though Tokyo Sonata replied, this is an excavation and you’ve only gotten a few centimeters into a major dig.

My second vision was that Tokyo Sonata was a tragedy, resembling Requiem for a Dream in dismantling every member of the family: these are flawed people and we’re going to show in grim, excruciating detail the consequences of these flaws. I’m really glad that the film did not wholly satisfy either of my visions, the feminist analysis or the object lesson in human frailty. I’m glad because then it would be like car chases and exploding things, which no doubt have their time and place in movie-making, but are easily encapsulated. Tokyo Sonata left things altogether more murky, no tidy boxes with bows. I’ll have to see it again. And of course, I’d highly recommend it.

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With Czech ratification of the Lisbon Treaty the European Union has ended a nearly decade long journey of negotiations, ratifications, referenda, and more negotiations, ratifications and referenda. Intense politicking has taken place across 27 EU members to get to this point (BBC).

Now the hard work begins.

The logic of the EU is simple. This set of nations has much to gain from pooling sovereignty. Separately, various European nations are middling or minor powers; together Europe is a superpower (at least economically on par with the United States). Additionally, binding European nations together tightly promotes peace and prevents future cataclysmic conflagrations (WWI, WWII). European officials promoting Lisbon repeatedly invoke Europe on a world stage, if Europe does not come together Beijing and Washington will run the world. An additional benefit, which I don’t think other international organizations have leveraged, the EU allows European nations an extra opportunity to influence global affairs. In addition to serving as an anteroom for forming European consensus in other forums (e.g. the World Bank), the EU is itself recognized as an actor, the EU is a member of the G20.

For me, this argument in favor the EU is compelling. The argument for the EU is especially compelling to many European political elites. But the pesky public keeps getting in the way of grand designs. No less than three no votes in the path to Lisbon (France, Holland, and Ireland) even though Lisbon falls far short of the federalists’ grandest design for a United States of Europe. Instead, Lisbon aims for the less lofty goal of making a 27-member EU function more coherently. Streamline here, eliminate duplication there, and remove some national vetoes. Euro-enthusiasts, like me, were onboard from the start. What to do about that pesky public though? That is, short of following Bertolt Brecht’s wry suggestion, “dissolve the people and elect another.”

I say “pesky public” to tweak the euro-enthusiasts. Treating the public like unwelcome guests at the state formation party is unsustainable. Europe does not belong to the eurocrats, it belongs to the 400 million European citizens. Surefire, quick-fix methods for conjuring a European polity being in short supply, I can only offer the following two suggestions.

First, don’t be afraid of the heavy hitters, big beasts, the best and the brightest, or goats (governments of all the talents). A mélange of American and British ways of saying, big important people should take big important posts. Not an endorsement of Tony Blair to be president of the European Council, but he definitely has world standing in his favor. A euroskeptic MEP remarked that everyone’s third choice usually gets these jobs, resulting in low profile, non-entities in major posts. I would suggest this is not the way forward. With a presidency whose term is two and a half years (renewable once, five years max), the EU has the opportunity to make its case to the European public. “Credit claiming” is the fairly dry term political scientists ascribe to the practice of crowing about accomplishments. Someone in Europe needs to say proudly, “I did that!” Otherwise national politicians take all the credit for the good things Europe does, while pinning all the painful or difficult decisions on the EU (conveniently omitting their own responsibility in creating European laws). This imbalance of credit claiming means the EU’s image gets affixed to a hodgepodge of unpopular policies – with a number of untruths about European directives floating about as well. Euromyths like the ban on crooked bananas, the renaming of a snack food Bombay Mix (Mumbai Mix), the renaming of sausages (emulsified high-fat offal tube), or the renaming of yoghurt (mild, alternate-culture, heat-treated fermented milk) (BBC).

Second, pursue multilingualism. Mother tongue plus two additional languages (M+2) is the official policy of the EU (EurActiv). Those countries with the most monolingual citizens need to work to catch up to the multilingual nations. Language education from an early age could make a difference. In September Charlemagne’s Notebook commented,

But what jumps out at me is the grim statistic about language learning in Britain. One column reports on upper secondary students in EU countries who do not study foreign languages at all. This line in the table shows a line of tiny numbers: lots of zeroes, a couple of low percentages (eg, 3.9% of Spanish teenagers learn no foreign languages at school, a blip for Ireland (18.8% without language lessons) and then comes Britain, where more than half of all schoolchildren in upper secondary education (51.4%) learn no foreign languages at all. This is, of course, the result of a deliberate government policy. In 2003, foreign languages became voluntary for pupils in England and Wales over 14. And there you have the results. Europe is becoming bilingual, except for Britons, who are becoming monolingual.

Yes, Europe is incredibly rich to have so many languages so close together. But it means educators have to redouble efforts to create a European citizenry that can communicate with each other. Europeans need to have the realistic prospect of moving elsewhere to work or study. A more multilingual Europe opens those possibilities up beyond Erasmus students (formally European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students).

Altogether, the pro-EU elites scorn the masses at their peril. Short term victories could be endangered by backlash and retrenchment. One can only call for do-overs of referenda so many times. The trick of turning the EU Constitution into the Lisbon Treaty also seems like a stunt that can only be pulled the once. Far better to engage the public with an eye toward creating a durable European polity.

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