FJM: Merrie Spaeth

A month ago I cashed in some airline miles that will never be sufficient to earn a flight on a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. So far as purchases made with otherwise valueless scrip, it’s been worthwhile. The news reporting, while filtered through the perspective of the .1%, is solid. The occasional interesting feature comes in on Saturday. And, every day, the editorial page offers a glimpse into the mindset of the American wingnut at the dawning of the age of Trump. The great educational value of reading the WSJ editorial pages is that they offer an object lesson in the fundamental fact that the barrel has no bottom to scrape where movement conservatism, reactionary populism, or revanchist oligarchy are concerned.

Today’s section offers a cheap attack on John Lewis’s congressional achievements from columnist Jason L.(the L is for “what’s John Lewis done for me LATELY?”) Riley, an editorial explaining that things will be better when industrial poultry farms dispose of their waste on the honor system, and Holman Jenkins, Jr.’s suggestion that the government ethics officials raising hue and cry about Donald Trump’s unresolved conflicts of interest are “aphids,” in which he makes a one-to-one comparison between the prospect of Trump’s children “parad[ing] around in semi-regal fashion, signing deals that wouldn’t otherwise come their way if their father wasn’t president?” and the marketing of Billy Beer.

This is a murderer’s row of cant, ideology, and willful ignorance, but these articles are tied for the silver medal behind Merrie Spaeth, who advises Republicans “How to Overcome the Tyranny of the Anecdote.” Although one might question how, exactly, anecdotes can exercise tyranny, and therefore disregard the article upon reading the headline, I, for some reason, read on. Since I did, you have to as well. So, without further ado, is an FJM.

While Republicans debate whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act outright or piecemeal, here are a few people they should meet: Paula, 52, a breast-cancer survivor; Namir, 35, with a rare tumor; Cameron, 44, who suffers from Parkinson’s; and Jason, 36, fighting a blood infection.

Wow, these people all have the kind of serious-and-expensive-but-unpredictable health conditions that constitute the very purpose of health insurance. Maybe their stories will support insight into the best policy decisions.

They all received lifesaving treatment through Obamacare; they, and others, will literally interpose their bodies in front of any attempt to reform or repeal it.

First off, that’s not what “literally” means, unless you are suggesting that Paula, Namir, Cameron, and Jason stage a sit-down strike in the halls of Congress to obstruct the coming reconciliation bill. Otherwise, they will “figuratively” or “symbolically” offer their bodily health as part of a rhetorical defense of the ACA. Second, I guess living is pretty important to these people! We’ll come back to that point in a bit.

It isn’t only health care. The cabinet nominees named by President-elect Trump have pledged to trim the thicket of regulations and executive actions that has accumulated during the past eight years. So get ready to meet a new cast of characters whose stories suggest that “making America great again” will result in dirty air, polluted water, starving children and general death and destruction–all the fault of heartless Republicans.

You forgot “fracking-related earthquakes.” And obviously the idea that people across America today suffer ill health and premature death from tainted drinking water is ridiculous. And no one is seeking to directly deprive poor households of funds to buy food. And, overriding clean air regulations couldn’t possibly harm people, who don’t need to breathe air constantly during every moment of their lives. These characters can really spin a yarn about environmental health and food, can’t they? What’s to be done? Consider the impacts of policy on human lives?

The Trump administration and the GOP have to be prepared for the communication strategy their opponents are already employing, with the media’s help: the bombardment of emotionally laden anecdotes.

People do have a strong emotional attachment to life and bodily health. I wonder why that’s such catnip to the media? It’s also truly unfortunate that only liberals and Democrats are successfully able to use this strategy of appeal to emotion through anecdote.

Already Republicans are making the same mistake they always do, which is to rest their case on impersonal facts and figures.

So, were these “Death Panel” astroturf town hall ambushes in 2009 “facts” or “figures“? And, oddly enough, the Congressional GOP has passed rules specifically excluding ACA repeal from requirements that the Congressional Budget Office analyze the 40-year spending impact of legislation. I guess they’re taking Merrie’s advice already and ditching those boring facts and figures. [Note: Politifact argues that the rules as adopted don’t bar the CBO from evaluating repeal, but, given that they require a 40-year horizon analysis for any legislation that might increase Federal spending by $5 billion at any time  during that period, the rule seems designed to bury spending bills in analysis while making the CBO too busy to do any non-required analysis on ACA].

Facts are the background noise of debate and analysis anecdotes are a message’s most powerful anchors. In the battle for public opinion, personal stories win. So what if Obamacare is woefully undersubscribed because it’s a bad deal for young, healthy people….

Oddly enough, Namir and Jason are both under 40 and before their respective tumor and blood infection, probably thought of themselves as healthy. One of the virtues of anecdotes is that they illustrate the way that actual human beings exist in society, and particularly the way that “young, healthy people” can become “young, sick people with very large medical expenses and urgent care needs” in short order.

or if millions have watched their deductibles skyrocket and choices narrow. Do you really want Paula, Namir, Cameron, and Jason to die?

Note: Spaeth is suggesting that you should prefer that these four people, and thousands like them, should die, to the prospect of higher insurance deductibles. I’d discuss the way that deductible increases are related to the ACA’s requirements that insurance companies actually pay claims and offer coverage, but perhaps that would be overly reliant on the old facts and figures. I’d also note that an uninsured person has a “deductible” of “infinity.”

A case study in the war between anecdotes and facts is the portrayal of black men shot by police officers.

Christ, these people can’t stop themselves, can they?

Individuals like Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald and Michael Brown have become icons, treated as if their stories are beyond debate.

When someone seeks to squelch controversy over police shootings, and selectively excludes cases like Walter Scott or Philando Castile, that’s a tell.

This is the emotion Hillary Clinton capitalized on when she accused police of “implicit bias,” a problem she claimed was “systemic.” President Obama used the international platform of a speech in Poland to note that blacks are arrested at twice the rate of whites.

If one wants to decry the use of anecdotes over “facts” then it’s an odd move to disregard a gigantic body of social science research–initiated at Harvard University no less–both qualitative and ethnographic and quantitative and experimental, suggesting that implicit bias is indeed systemic. Hell, take Nerdy Suge Knight’s word for it:

Now the facts:

Uh huh….

Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who has won a slew of honors for his research

Appeal to authority (Harvard social scientist version) is valid for some instances, but not others.

made news with a report, “An empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.” He found that in Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, police were 23.8% less likely to shoot at blacks than at whites–a statistically insignificant [ed-I assume this is a typo where Spaeth meant “significant.” I’m charitable that way.] difference even Mr. Fryer called “surprising.”

Nitpicking here as a former academic: every researcher calls their findings “surprising” because that is academic code for “interesting” or “pay attention.” In Fryer’s case, it worked, because he instantly became the right wing’s favorite black social scientist as the likes of Rush Limbaugh reported “proof” that the cops aren’t racist.

Here’s the problem. Although Fryer has since been open about acknowledging the limits of his study and the gap between its most sensational coverage in the press and the policy conclusions that ought to be drawn from it, almost everyone, including Spaeth, is grossly misinterpreting the study, which, to be clear, was a working paper, rather than a peer-reviewed publication, and which has been criticized by other scholars, including those at Harvard.

The key is that the findings are based in a particular “universe” of individual incidents, in this case, Houston police encounters with racially identified persons. Although a higher proportion of encounters with white individuals escalated to shooting compared to encounters with black individuals, this tells us nothing about the likelihood of a random white or black Houstonian being contacted by police officers. A more reliable conclusion might be “black Houstonians are more likely to be pulled over for the slightest reason, while white Houstonians must need to be flagrantly breaking the law to make the acquaintance of a cop, which makes it more likely the encounter will escalate.” This is a problem with the universe of the data, that Fryer acknowledges. The Department of Justice’s report on Chicago’s police and the systematic abuse of civil rights by the CPD presents a decidedly different, and contextual, portrait of the relationship of race and police violence.

Honestly, I’ve had enough of Spaeth’s abuse of social science, so I’m going to skip ahead a bit.

The problem is that nobody cares about [statistics chosen selectively, almost like anecdotes] when you’ve got a tragic situation like that of Keith Lamont Scott, captured on cellphone video in Charlotte, North Carolina, while his wife yells that he suffers from a traumatic brain condition.

Watch the video if you have the stomach. Then ask yourself if you’re comforted by a statistical argument that police aren’t biased, and what about all the times police don’t shoot people?

What to do? Don’t assume these shootings are all justified, or that groups like Black Lives Matter should be dismissed for telling the stories. Some stories are true.

This feels like a head fake. Where’s the big “but?”

Instead of expressing regrets and retreating to statistics and studies,

Again, these being the noted redoubt of conservative politics. Carry on.

Republicans need to deploy anecdotes of their own. There were 762 homicides in Chicago last year, a 57% increase over 2015, and 3,550 shootings. Anecdotes put names and faces on these figures. Fifteen-year-old Javon Wilson, a grandson of Rep. Danny Davis, was fatally shot in an argument over a pair of shoes. Gang members allegedly shot and killed Nykea Aldridge, a 32 year-old cousin of basketball star Dwyane Wade, as she pushed a baby stroller.

Chicago. Javon. Nykea. Dwyane. Sneaker-related killings. Gang members. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention since Goldwater, this is using “anecdotes” to invoke “black on black crime” to “change the subject” on police violence. This is where I get off the train. I tried. There’s some stuff about job creators and how welfare reform really didn’t literally starve children. If you are a “facts” and “analysis” person you can read here for more. Or you can read an anecdote about welfare from Paul Ryan that’s both fabricated and plagiarized.

Oh, what’s this?

Ms. Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations.

Hell, had they put the bio blurb at the beginning, we could have all saved some time. Reagan was never one to embroider an anecdote to influence public policy or exaggerate his role in historic events or pander to the insecurities of Americans for political gain.

Advertisements

Off Topic: Your Liberal Media in Action. Plus Nutella.

It was a big day in the New York Times Sunday edition that’s been showing up on my doorstep unannounced for the last couple of weeks (It must belong to the old tenant or to the one next door who’s out of town, to judge by the uncollected junk mail in their box. At any rate, I did my due diligence by waiting until after I returned from a run to bring it inside–the unwritten laws of urban living have been followed).

I’ll get to the big serious article about urban poverty in a while, but before that, let’s consider Stephanie Strom’s front-page piece on pending litigation against food companies for deceptive labeling.

The problem starts with the headline,

After Tobacco, Lawyers Set Their Sights on Food Industry [note: online, it’s the slightly less terrifying “Lawyers From Suits Against Big Tobacco Target Food Makers”])

and gets worse from there. If I remember my inverted pyramid (and I think I do, but there’s a reason I’m practicing history and not journalism), the most important stuff the reporter wants to stress comes in the first paragraph. That way, if a busy reader wants to stop reading, they still take away the most important stuff. What’s Strom trying to make sure her reader grasps?

Don Barrett, a Mississippi lawyer, took in hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago after suing Big Tobacco and winning record settlements from R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and other cigarette makers. So did Walter Umphrey, Dewitt M. Lovelace and Stuart and Carol Nelkin.

Ever since, the lawyers have been searching for big paydays in business, scoring more modest wins against car companies, drug makers, brokerage firms and insurers. Now, they have found the next target: food manufacturers.

I’m struggling to find any daylight between the Newspaper of Record and a Limbaugh Two Minute Hate: Trial Lawyers segment. When a reporter, ostensibly writing a news story, frames the case as a challenge to

industry players like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani that stock pantry shelves and refrigerators across America

it sends a pretty clear signal about who’s wearing the black hats. “Those Trial Lawyers, at it again!” says Joe Q. Sixpack. “They won’t be satisfied until they’ve sued all of the food out of existence,” he grumbles, as Stephanie Strom revels in the satisfactions of a job of professional, objective journalism well done.

It takes quite a bit more reading, and turning to page 4, before a reader gets any sense of the stakes for consumers of mass-produced food products: honest representation of the products they (and by “they” I mean “we, all of us”) consume. But we can’t even get there directly, without first hearing the industry’s perspective.

“It’s difficult to take some of these claims seriously, for instance, that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children,” said Kristen E. Polovoy, an industry lawyer at Montgomery McCracken, referring to a lawsuit that two mothers brought against the maker of Nutella. “I think the courts are starting to look at the implausibility of some of these suits.”

This, incidentally, is an example of the advertisements in question.

The semiotics of this ad are pretty rich. Visually, we have Blonde Attractive (But Not Threateningly So) Mom, and Three Fair Haired Children in a Big Suburban McMansion With Obligatory Great Room and Kitchen Island. The Golden Retriever is a little on the nose, but I’ll let it slide. Clearly, this is not a household where Imperfect Things are welcomed.

As for Nutella, this hazelnut spread fits right in. It’s great for getting those kids fed (and look at how healthy those kids are!), particularly because of how well it spreads on other healthy-sounding foods like “multigrain toast” and “even whole wheat waffles.” Pictures do most of the messaging work here, because the language in Super Mom’s lines has been lawyered to the point of meaninglessness. Nutella helps her “give my family a breakfast they’ll want to eat.” It is made with “simple, quality ingredients.” The words “nutritious” don’t pass her lips, nor do the words “sugar” and “palm oil,” though they’re first on the list of those simple ingredients. But unless you’re blind, you probably get the message.

So, we could rephrase Polovoy’s defense as “our advertisements play you for suckers, but it’s not our fault it worked.” Some moral high ground we’ve got here. It’s almost as if big food corporations have no regard for…. HEY! LOOK OVER THERE! A PLAINTIFF’S TRIAL LAWYER MADE A LOT OF MONEY ON A CASE!

We do learn, paragraphs later, that food industry lawyers are concerned that they might be compelled to stop exploiting the vagueness of terms like “natural” and “healthy.” Litigation particularly focuses on the use of “evaporated cane juice” as a purposefully deceptive label euphemism for sugar. While we’ve been assured by the numerous industry representatives quoted that such claims are frivolous,

Even so, such cases are raising concerns within the industry.

At a recent food and beverage conference attended by more than 100 lawyers, Madeleine M. McDonough, a lawyer at Shook, Hardy & Bacon who is co-chairwoman of the agribusiness and food safety practice, warned in a session on fraud litigation that it was imperative for companies to comply with federal regulation. “Otherwise, we are dead in the water,” she said, according to two lawyers present, including J. Price Coleman, who is working with Mr. Barrett’s group.

In another time or place, this story might have been headlined “The Threat of Litigation Makes Companies Consider Following the Law.”

It’s not until the final column that Strom gets around to explaining some of the public stakes of the lawsuits

Consumers are increasingly conscious of their eating habits as rates of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health problems rise. State and local governments are also becoming alarmed at the escalating costs of caring for people with those diseases and are putting pressure on food companies….

Plaintiffs’ lawyers realize that critics may counter that their lawsuits do not have real victims.

Mr. Barrett fought tobacco cases for years on behalf of smokers dying of cancer — and lost because juries agreed with the tobacco companies that smoking was a personal choice. Not until he and Richard Scruggs sued on behalf of states, which had spent hundreds of millions of dollars caring for sick smokers, did they win their record settlement.

Oddly, for an article stressing the links between food lawsuits and tobacco lawsuits, Strom doesn’t directly state the most obvious link: tobacco companies made immense profits selling deadly products and externalizing the costs of using those products onto the broader public. Although winning lawsuits delivered big fees to lawyers, they also served to internalize some of those costs.

As an urbanist I found Upton Sinclair’s sociological observations of the Back-Of-The-Yards and his indictment of labor and predatory credit practices in the Gilded Age far more interesting than his what’s-in-your-sausage-anyway passages.  As Eric Schlosser writes in the introduction to a great reprint edition, public response to The Jungle unfortunately picked clean food out of a complex ethos of social justice that included fair working and living conditions. Nonetheless, the idea that people should know, and that wealthy corporations owe us the truth about what was in their food used to be kind of a big deal.