The New Age Of News Fatigue

Any human being who put his ear to the heart chamber of the world and heard the roar of existence, the “innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe,” said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would surely break into pieces.

Nietzsche lived long before the Internet which provides an endless stream of shouts of pleasure and woe that 21st it is bad: global warming, the parade of death in Syria, the endless killing among Islamic sects, civil strife in Iraq, the degenerating situation in Afghanistan, Vladimir Putin’s mindless rule of a great nuclear power, rampant poverty and disease in the Third World, China’s suppression of human rights, disappearing animal species and errant airliners – the grim tidings just never stop.

And it should come as no surprise that a growing number of Americans are tuning it all out. Call it news fatigue. It isn’t that we don’t care, but the world is awash in problems we cannot control. We have a mighty military armed with high tech weaponry that costs many billions, but it struggles to cope with suicide bombers. A $5 improvised explosive device will blow up a $500,000 armored vehicle and send brave young soldiers into perpetual struggle with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder. If we had no mighty military, perhaps we would be less inclined to get involved in these kinds of situations.

Even great issues not involving terrorists or armies leave us vexed. The scientists say our production of greenhouse gases is altering the Earth’s climate irrevocably, but most of that comes from burning coal which produces almost half of our electricity. In other nations, such as China and India, the proportion is even higher. To stop burning coal we would have to basically shut down our economy and throw countless millions of people into abject poverty. That is not a viable option, but then neither is climate change. Just thinking about it will give you a headache.

I believe this is a major reason the younger set is turning away from newspapers and TV news in favor of the Internet. You can pretty much get the information you want on the Internet but you have to know what you’re looking for. In contrast, if you pick up a newspaper or turn on the network news, you will be inundated with reports of terrible things you knew nothing about. I suspect people are moving to the Internet to escape from the deluge of bad news.

The challenge of news fatigue is one of perspective. We have to keep in mind that the world has always been a mess. Certainly the 14th church, breakdown of civil order was worse than this one. Indeed the previous century with two great world wars, the holocausts in Europe and Cambodia, flu and AIDS epidemics, etc., was probably even worse in terms of total lives lost.

Most of us in the west live lives of relative security and increasing longevity. There are potential disasters everywhere; that is part of life and always has been. We can take comfort in knowing that intelligent people are striving to deal with the endless problems and challenges we face. There are positive news reports among the media bedlam if you look for them. Our most pressing challenge is not to lose heart or faith in the future. Our children will do better than we have. Our species will survive.


Despair Over Income Disparity

During his annual State of the Union address President Obama identified the growing income disparity in our country as a major problem we should do something about. This is apparently going to become the mantra of the Democrats for the November elections.It’s going to be a long year. The income disparity is one of those fuzzy issues that lends itself to demagoguery. Everyone seems to agree the disparity is too big, but no one says how big it ought to be. Surely we don’t want everyone to have the same income. That vision got a workout in the last century. The results were poor. Income inequality is as American as pizza. We assume people with a lot on the ball should earn more money than slackers.

But how much more? There is no credible answer, nor is there any consensus regarding what we should do about the growing income disparity.
We hear a lot about curbing the excessive compensation of corporate CEOs, which generally speaking would be a good idea. Some of these guys are giving greed a bad name. But that would not rectify the problem. Also, raising the minimum wage is another red herring. Less than 3 percent of workers earn the minimum wage and most of those are middle class kids in their first jobs. Raising the minimum wage may be a good idea but it will not impact the income gap.

Likewise, raising taxes on the rich might have some impact, but not much. In 2013, the top 1 percent of wage earners paid 30 percent of tax revenues. The bottom 20 percent paid no federal taxes. We can tweak that balance but all our tweaking will not close the income disparity.

The real problem of course is not one of income but rather social and economic mobility. As long as people see reasonable hope for a better future, our nation will prosper. Unfortunately, opportunities for advancement are increasingly scarce for many people, especially those with limited education and few job skills. A major part of that stems from the loss of millions of low skill manufacturing jobs that once offered people with minimal qualifications relatively easy access to the middle class. We have a great potential to employ more people in well-paying manufacturing jobs, but jobs in modern manufacturing require advanced education and training that most of the displaced manufacturing workers simply do not have.

In sum, we are left with a growing wealth gap between the top and bottom. What are we to do about it? Should we do anything? I extol the importance of education, but too much of our higher education today is failing to endow students with marketable work skills in our rapidly changing economy. Today 15 percent of cab drivers in the U.S. have college degrees. Applications to four year universities are declining and for good reason.

The growing income disparity is a result of a stubborn unemployment that reasonable people working together can solve. One solution is a coherent program for training people of all ages for jobs that actually exist and offer potential for personal growth. The business community would eagerly join forces with government in support of such an initiative if it were truly bi-partisan, professionally led and based upon practical incentives.
In his State of the Union address, the President also called upon Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to rationalize federal job training programs. Without question, the plethora of federal job training programs is a mass of confusion and wasteful duplication. The Government Accountability Office had identified 47 job training programs in nine agencies that spent $18 billion in 2009. The House Education and Workforce Committee says the GAO left out at least nine programs.

And of course these are just federal programs we’re talking about. There are hundreds more at the state and local level, and even more in the private sector – including the Manufacturing Institute’s “Dream It, Do It” initiative of the Manufacturing Institute that is doing great work. It may be that the best training programs are in fact at the state and local level.

We have faced bigger challenges than the income gap. What we need is less demagoguery, more rational analysis and perhaps a bit of leadership.

Bureaucratic Inertia

It was perhaps inevitable that the bungled launch of Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act – would throw an unwelcome light on the federal bureaucracy which has never been noted for its efficiency and productivity. The federal bureaucrats had three years and about half a billion dollars to get this thing off the ground, and they blew it. What else is new?

I have worked in and around the federal bureaucracy for almost half a century, and am thoroughly familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. I knew early on that this project, given its complexity and reliance on digital technology, would present the bureaucrats with an unprecedented challenge they were unlikely to handle very well.

The problem is not that federal employees are lazy or unmotivated, but they operate in an inverse culture where routine private sector pressures do not apply. Managers cannot reward initiative or punish ineptitude. Almost no one is ever dismissed for cause, and on those rare occasions when adverse employee actions are undertaken, they tend to linger for years unresolved while the people involved continue to draw full pay and benefits. Managers are evaluated, not by how much work gets done, but by how many bodies they can add to the payroll. Quite a few of those bodies are doing virtually nothing.

Perhaps the upside down nature of the bureaucratic culture is most on display near the end of the fiscal year as the agencies scramble to spend all of the money in their budgets on anything and everything. In the private sector, this would be regarded as malfeasance if not insanity. But federal bureaucrats of every agency know if they do not spend all of their money on time, Congress will conclude they have more than they need and reduce that agency’s appropriation in the next budget cycle. Washington abounds in consultants and contractors well versed in this practice and ever eager to take advantage of it through lucrative government contracts.

Like lawyers, bureaucrats have their own language that outsiders generally find dense if not impenetrable. For example, they never say use, they say utilize. They never speak with each other; they interface.  And they prefer modified nouns to verbs – such as optimize, maximize, minimize, systematize, prioritize, and incrementalize. No self-respecting bureaucrats would ever express a clear thought such as “We did the job.” Rather, they employ the passive voice, as in “The plan was implemented” or “The policy was reviewed.” Bureaucrats are the only people I know who can speak without saying anything, and mean it.

The bureaucrats have discovered over many years that writing and speaking this way has a hypnotic effect on people outside the Beltway, conveying the impression that the job is being done without conveying any real information on what that job might entail. I have no doubt the government employees responsible for The Affordable Care Act conveyed that impression to the Obama team right up until the day the great plan was rolled out and laid a giant egg.

The bureaucracy is in dire need of overhaul, but don’t hold your breath. Republicans don’t pursue reform because they do not want an efficient bureaucracy, and Democrats don’t pursue it because they do not want to antagonize federal employee unions. The only certainty is that no one in the federal bureaucracy will be held accountable for this fiasco. No one in the bureaucracy is ever held responsible. That never happens. It just isn’t done.