The Commonwealth Blog
By Alex Wolinsky
On May 24, the Times-Picayune, which received two Pulitzers in 2006 for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, confirmed that it would eliminate staff and drop down to three days of print publication per week, rendering New Orleans the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper.
Such a decision piqued outrage among much of the citizenry and drew significant coverage from major news outlets, but it is merely symptomatic of the oft-mentioned difficulties currently facing the print journalism industry, which suffers from declining advertising revenue and a host of other issues resulting from the paradigm shift induced by the rise of the Internet. Print, however, is not the only journalistic media finding itself facing challenges: In the case of television news especially, objectivity — arguably journalism’s most integral tenet — seems to be losing its prominence.
“[W]hat engagement has turned into … is partisanship, and so you have right and you have left,” David Westin, former president of ABC News, said in a speech before the Club on May 30. “That in itself is not necessarily evil: We’ve always had opinion in newspapers; there’s an editorial page; there’s an op-ed page. What is the problem … is the blurring of the line.”
The warping of this distinction is deeply problematic, because this age of mass media has made news — and especially the manner in which it’s reported — among the most powerful forces shaping public opinion. Indeed, even the struggle for the nation’s highest office has been characterized as primarily an effort to manipulate the media. More troubling still is that pursuing such control has resulted in the appropriation of objective news sound bites in campaign advertisements, which has been the case in the current election cycle.
In a July 19 column for The New York Times, CNBC Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood described how a three-second sound bite in which he called — in an objective and factual statement — the year’s second quarter “the worst job-adding quarter in two years” became part of an ad criticizing President Obama. Crossroads GPS, the super PAC co-founded by former Republican strategist Karl Rove that paid for the ad, never acquired Harwood or CNBC’s permission to use the news broadcast footage. Other victims of such tactics include journalists as prominent as former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and New York Times columnist David Brooks. In taking footage for political purposes, advertisers may hope to gain — or, by extension, compromise — the credibility and objectivity of the mainstream media.
As journalism faces the challenges of the 21st century and the changing nature of the media, one cannot help but wonder how the distant future will look for the reporting industry. According to another New York Times columnist, David Carr, “great journalism … is the one sure hedge against irrelevancy.” Great journalism, at least by its current definition, entails objectivity and genuine integrity; so as the industry evolves, one can only hope Carr’s analysis is correct.
• On Monday, September 10, 2012, see NBC Bay Area News Anchor Diane Dwyer and media strategist Tom Sinkovitz discuss "The Media and Presidential Politics" at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco
By Alex Wolinsky
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession came to an end in June 2009. National output figures support this assertion, as GDP has surpassed its 2008 prerecession peak and continues to rise.
Despite this, much of the economy appears to remain depressed, and we currently approach the end of a fourth year of abysmal employment numbers. Unemployment currently stands at 8.2 percent of the labor force, well above the approximately 5 percent jobless rate prior to the recession, and its decline is excruciatingly sluggish. As a result, jobs and the labor market remain decisively at the forefront of political discussion.
A traditional recovery — one achieved through expansion of America’s conventionally strong industries, namely manufacturing and construction — might not, however, be effective or even desirable. This is because the economy has in the last decade undergone a revolution, of sorts, in which the driving force is no longer the production of physical goods but the conception and implementation of ideas. Indeed, as noted by UC Berkeley Economics Professor Enrico Moretti in his recent book The New Geography of Jobs, the most depressed areas of the country are those that have historically relied on manufacturing as an economic engine, and their situation has only worsened since 2008’s meltdown.
One might wonder why a recovery with its roots in traditional sectors is not an ideal target — after all, shouldn’t an economic rebound driven by any industry be appealing? There are reasons to believe that such a recovery might be short-lived and could even compromise the long-run economic well-being of the country. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant manufacturer, and it’s unlikely that it will ever regain that role. The reason for this is that other nations — especially China — possess larger pools of unskilled labor and thus far cheaper production overall. American workers produce far more goods per hour of labor, but attempting to compete with China’s sheer manpower is essentially hopeless and even counterproductive, because doing so would consume labor resources better allocated elsewhere.
So if not through an expansion of manufacturing and a proliferation of blue-collar jobs, how can America's leaders take action to combat unemployment?
One answer being proffered is as simple as it is clichéd: support greater access to higher education, and encourage youth to pursue advanced degrees. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, only 27.9 percent of Americans aged 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, and a mere 10.3 percent possess advanced degrees. Given the level of expertise required for jobs in ideas-based fields, these numbers, especially the latter, are wholly inadequate.
At its peak, manufacturing directly employed nearly one-fifth of the labor force. The nation’s emerging economic engine cannot hope to approach this figure unless a larger proportion of the population acquires the necessary skills. An expansion of education might thus be in order to secure the nation’s economic future.
• For a list of programs examining the employment problems of today and tomorrow from a variety of angles, see The Commonwealth Club's August series The Future of Work
Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut to enter space, died yesterday at the age of only 61. She had been fighting pancreatic cancer.
Though much of the news coverage this day after her passing is focused on her groundbreaking flight aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 or on her previously unknown female partner of 27 years -- both of which are important and interesting angles -- at The Commonwealth Club of California we also remember her crucial work championing math and science education for girls. That was the focus of her program at the Club seven years ago, titled "The Greatest Challenge Facing Humanity."
Read a PDF of her speech and audience Q&A at The Commonwealth Club on June 16, 2005.
Analysis by Alex Wolinsky
Earlier this year, the Greek parliament voted to approve austerity measures in exchange for increased foreign aid in an attempt to resuscitate the country's moribund economy. Later that day, central Athens burned.
Given the origins of Greece's predicament -- a bloated welfare state and dishonest bookkeeping, in addition to an array of other factors -- one might conclude that austerity, in conjunction with greater external oversight, is an integral ingredient of any solution to the European economic catastrophe and, by extension, to that in the United States. Economist Paul Krugman, however, argues otherwise.
"This is not the time for that, because it is literally self-defeating," he said during a lecture before The Commonwealth Club in May. "Try to do austerity now, and it actually just deepens the depression."
According to Krugman, such action would trigger a reduction in the size of the economy as workers and businesses that depend on the government for wages and revenue cut their spending. As a result, the tax base shrinks, the deficit problem -- as well as the crisis as a whole -- worsens and the solvency of the government is placed further in jeopardy.
So, if expected results resemble those described above, why would anyone advocate a policy of austerity?
The answer is that the projected outcome is decidedly rosier. By classical economic theory, a reduction in government expenditures --a fiscal contraction -- does in fact cause a decline in GDP, but accompanying this is a bolstering of foreign confidence in the long-run solvency of the government and thus greater willingness to grant loans, which can be used for economic revitalization and a brighter future.
Though there are certainly examples of austerity being successful, more often in the post-recession world -- especially in Europe -- its results are similar to those described by Krugman. Indeed, as noted by former Council of Economic Advisers Chairwoman Christina Romer in an April 28 column for The New York Times, "[A]usterity is uniquely destructive right now."
With this in mind, what should be done to combat fiscal insolvency?
Many economists, including Romer, argue that less important than a government's total debt is its debt-to-GDP ratio. Intuitively, this makes sense: A country with a larger economy should be able to assume greater total debt than a nation with a smaller GDP before it suffers from insolvency concerns. This presents the novel conclusion that a country can mitigate insolvency either through cutting spending -- through austerity -- or through boosting its GDP. This latter action is most easily pursed by implementing an increase in government expenditures, which wholly contradicts the stipulations of austerity measures.
Overall, the debt-to-GDP ratio idea offers the immensely attractive concept of an economic recovery without further, government-induced pain. And, given the current state of the austerity-rife European Union, exploring related policies might be the tempting -- albeit admittedly unlikely -- next step.
• Related upcoming event: September 6, Economist Paul Saffo -- The Great Turbulence: Economics and the New Global Order
By Pria Whitehead
A couple of weeks ago, I cited Michael Ellsberg and Ezra Klein in a post about questions surrounding higher education in the U.S. I’d like to return briefly to Klein’s article, which appeared in both Bloomberg and The Washington Post, in which he asserts that the migration to Wall Street among recent liberal arts graduates is indicative of the “failure” of liberal arts programs to administer a useful education to their students.
One of my first encounters with this article occurred in conversation with a friend who, himself a Harvard graduate and Bay Area entrepreneur, wholly disagreed with Klein’s premise. My friend had rather fervently disputed Klein’s dismissal of liberal arts classes in “subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills” (Klein). “What about the fact that I learned how to write, argue and persuade in college?” my friend had asked. “Does he think I could have started a successful business without learning how to write?”
Klein’s argument is compelling insofar as it provides a framework for understanding the draw of the finance industry for recent college grads, but the careful construction of this framework is perhaps too quickly subjugated to a fairly antiseptic dichotomy between the liberal arts and the world of finance. Granted, Klein is not the first to have imagined this dichotomy. In the article itself, he cites a 2008 commencement speech by the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, in which Faust himself denounces the finance industry’s “all but irresistible recruiting juggernaut.” But in Klein’s very denunciation of an incongruity between the categories of finance and the liberal arts is an avid affirmation of – and, perhaps, contribution to – their mutual alienation.
When Klein describes the early Wall Street career as “a practical graduate school,” he seems to be referring to its compensatory pragmatism for the individual rather than to its wider social application. This individual-centric approach appears only partially fair, as it neglects the notions of accountability and cooperation inherent to any career – and perhaps especially to a career in the finance industry, which is responsible for managing massive proportions of the world’s wealth.
Yale economics professor Robert Shiller, who notoriously predicted the stock market and real estate bubbles of the past decade, appeared at the Commonwealth Club last month to discuss the rationale for his book Finance and the Good Society (Listen to the MP3 of Shiller's speech). In the book, Shiller urges readers to recognize the fundamental and large-scale contributions of the finance industry to the management of our economic, social and political assets and objectives. Though sympathetic to the criticism of the finance industry, Shiller argued in his talk that “there is a fundamental problem with being so angry at finance,” and proceeded to outline the contributions of financial capitalism to global progress. “There are some people,” he continued, “that scare others. They haven’t committed any crimes yet … but … unless they commit a crime they’re going to be out there, so we have to design a system that is nice, that encourages them to be constructive.”
Based on Shiller’s remarks, it would seem that society could draw a wider framework around the finance industry – a framework that wholly incorporates and, in some way, incentivizes social responsibility. Our system of capitalism is largely based on a correlation – not an opposition – between social good and financial gain. The fact that this balance is capable of going horribly awry suggests a reconsideration of the ways in which these two things, good and gain, might work together.
Assuming, as Klein argues, that an early-stage job in finance constitutes a type of education, perhaps it would be constructive to conceive of this kind of job as a continuation of, rather than an alternative to, a learning process. While questions surrounding the value of college institutions are paramount, the fact is that the liberal arts remain an integral part of many youngsters’ educations; one can speculate on a variety of academic and non-academic skills that such an education might hone. Perhaps a step in the right direction would be to take the numbers* that Klein cited – however astounding they may be – as a given, and figure out how better to make them work to our advantage as a society.
* “In December, the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell asked Harvard, Yale and Princeton for data on the professions their graduates were entering. As of 2011, finance remained the most popular career for Harvard graduates, sucking up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. At Yale, 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class, and at Princeton, 35.9 percent, were headed into finance.”
Today, Google celebrates the 75th anniversary of the now-iconic Golden Gate Bridge with its latest search-page image.
Google notes that there was much opposition to the bridge when its construction was being planned and debated. Some of that opposition even came from The Commonwealth Club, though the Club didn't issue an official position on the matter. (We're quite taken with the bridge now, so consider us to have been won over.)
The Club has held many programs over the years concerning the bridge - most recently just this past Thursday. You can learn about those programs, comments, and even selected audio by visiting this search page.
And if you're in the Bay Area, then you know that today, Sunday, May 27, there are tons of events across the area celebrating this marvel of engineering. Enjoy.
This week at The Commonwealth Club:
- Middle East Discussion Group
- Green Myths Busted
- Science & Technology Planning Meeting
- Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger: Stories from American Leaders (program is in Lafayette)
- Innovators without Borders (the Blueseed plan; program is in Silicon Valley)
- Paul Krugman: End This Depression Now (this event is SOLD OUT)
- Mourad Lahlou: New Moroccan
- On Assignment with National Geographic
- David Talbot: A Wild Ride Through San Francisco's Recent Past
- U.S.-Cuba Relations and the Cuban Economy
- The Golden Gate Bridge at 75: What Makes an Icon
- Week to Week (this program RESCHEDULED to June 29)
Plus language classes, committee meetings, and more. For more info on our events and to reserve tickets: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events
Facebook, Chicago politics, Donna Summers, and more: Take our news quiz, created by The Commonwealth Club's Week to Week team and posted exclusively at Huffington Post San Francisco.
Have you been following the news this week?
Do you like to see if you know more about current events than your friends?
Take the quiz and end the suspense.
This week at The Commonwealth Club of California:
Week to Week: News Commentary Program for May 14, 2012
Chinatown Walking Tour
Steven Machtinger: Yes, We Kant – Mozart and the Sublime
Willie Brown: 2012 Annual Lecture on Political Trends (this event is SOLD OUT)
Cal vs. Harvard Debate
Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful
James Fallows: China Airborne
Andy Cohen: Bravo's Man of Moxie (this event is SOLD OUT)
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein: Is Political Compromise Possible?
Fair Trade: Harnessing the Power of the Market to Create Economic Opportunities
Jose Antonio Vargas
Bill Bradley: We Can All Do Better (special luncheon event)
For details and tickets: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/