Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Forever Playing D

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As I recently mentioned, in the past few years it has become a rare occurrence for me to watch the talking heads on cable or network news for any length of time. Odd for a person that was once addicted to CNN back in 'da day, but as the medium turned away from information and more towards the "infotainment" of turning the news into so much gawking over celebrity and sensationalism, I slowly lost interest. It's shrill, it's shallow, and I'm bored. But, if there is a topic I've taken an interest in, I can force myself to watch this stuff, however painful it may be. Michigan stories hold my attention. The GM IPO last week was one such occasion, if only to enjoy the sense of "told ya so" satisfaction, and watch them trot out smiley happy Governor Granholm to make some comments on what must have felt like such a great relief after spending much of 2009 wondering if the entire state was going to go over the cliff. Gotta take these victories when you can and enjoy them.

When I do watch these segments, I'm always struck at how the right-wing talking points have worked their way into accepted conventional wisdom. Yes, there are sites such as Media Matters and bloggers like Digby (my new hero - how she can listen to Beck and Limbaugh and not go insane is beyond me) who point this out on a daily basis, but if you don't watch regularly, you forget how pervasive it really is.

Three appearances in total. After watching the Bloomberg segment on GM in the morning, I felt that familiar feeling of the blood pressure rising (transcript here), so I'm going to pick on them in particular to start.

SCHATZKER: Governor, GM is not a ward of the state anymore, as you know. It's a public company with a fiduciary responsibility. How do you stop GM from doing what is right for shareholders, but what is wrong for Michigan?

Why is it an either/or proposition? This question automatically pits the "shareholders" vs. "the state" (or to be specific, workers in the state), when the reality is that GM should strive to work for the benefit of both. The Governor points out that the jobs saved and/or created are indeed good for Michigan and American manufacturing. Sales = production = jobs = more sales = profits = happy shareholders. Or am I missing something in this equation? Yes, if you want to infer that the "right" thing for the shareholders would be to leave American workers behind. The question only reinforces the "profits over people" mentality that has spread like a sickness over our current culture. Don't people matter anymore? Do we want a nation filled with masses of poor and unemployed folks? How is that healthy for the country as a whole?

Moving on, we quickly jump to the now infamous "some people say" line of questioning, and funny how those "some people" are always channeling someone like Dick Shelby...

SCHATZKER: Governor, the word partnership raises alarm bells in some quarters. We heard it yesterday from Senator Debbie Stabenow. She used it to describe the IPO and the bailout as a new partnership with industry.

You know that there are people out there who listen to the word partnership and think this is going to be the bailout that never ends, we're just going to be giving away tax breaks and grants to GM and Chrysler, perhaps, from here to eternity. Is that what's going to happen?

I know this might shock some people, but Governor Granholm doesn't have the ability to foresee every possible event that may happen "from here to eternity". Which is too bad, really, because we could place some bets on sporting events and be set up for life. This absurd question can't be answered of course, and was just a vehicle to raise the "endless bailout" talking point that Republicans in Congress used to try and kill the assistance in the first place. Why is it assumed that a "partnership" would be a drain? Because government is always "bad", of course!

The next question was better, asking how we keep the jobs in America in the face of competition and GM's foreign investment, and the answer is quite simply that as long as the playing field on trade in uneven, we have to give incentives. Labor costs, tariffs, foreign governments propping up their industries with cash - this is going to be the new norm in a global economy. That's why the push for fair trade is so important, and it's something we have to do from here on out. Striving for balance is the name of the game, and it's going to be complicated.

Moving on, here comes the big one - the specter of the big, bad, scary UAW, and all those working folks that may want to improve their lot in life on the future... the horror!

Governor, a question for you about the unions. How are you going to handle this issue? The union members are your constituents. They're the citizens of Michigan, the residents of Michigan. At a certain point, they're going to want more from General Motors and Chrysler. And you know as well as I that as soon as they start asking for more, those companies are going to start thinking about whether those jobs should be in Michigan. How do you handle that question?

This could be a fair question if asked correctly, but it wasn't. It chooses to ignore the sacrifices that the UAW has already made - and they made them well before the bailout occurred. Parity with foreign automakers in America was reached with the contract of 2007, something that the media loves to overlook when discussing this issue. Or, the fact that the UAW has taken over the health care costs, another important step at keeping these companies competitive. All happened years ago, before the economy crashed, but the CW still seems to be that we need to keep American workers "in their place" - or everyone will pack up and leave. It's the threat that keeps on giving. Governor Granholm gave props to the UAW and Bob King, and points out that labor is only 7% in the total cost of a new car - but the question, as phrased, tells us that the union-bashing will continue in the business media, the facts of the matter ignored.

One more stale "some people say" meme to float again before we leave...

"SCHATZKER: And one last question for you, Governor, about Ford. Some people are concerned that the playing field will not be level eventually, that because GM and Chrysler got a bailout, Ford is going to be at a disadvantage. Do you think there's any truth to that?

Although Ford itself raised this question back when the argument for bailout of the others was being made, they certainly didn't push the issue because they realized that a) they would go down if GM and Chrysler went down, and b) they had the marketing advantage not receiving "taxpayer money" - putting them in the catbird seat as far as public opinion goes. You could say that Ford had a bigger advantage than GM and Chrysler - especially if this had all gone bad on us and the bankruptcy proceedings dragged out longer than they did. So, don't shed any tears for Ford. They played their cards right, and they are going to be just fine. They know it, and that's why you don't hear them complaining.

So, that was Bloomberg, still advancing the following ideas: We need to protect the shareholders at all costs, the bailout will never end, wages of American union workers will push companies to leave the country, and that Ford was somehow a victim of this bailout.

CNBC's Squawk Box wasn't much better. Basically, Quick started off with a positive, saying this was "huge news" and asked Governor Granholm a very open-ended "how do you see this" question. Off she goes. Smart interviewers don't do that with the Governor, because she will fill your ear and won't stop. After that, Quick tried to get Granholm to somehow guarantee GM's success, again asking to project into the future on staying profitable, and "how do you make sure that happens" - like any one person has control on that. Governor reeled off all the positives, labor contracts, good management, whips out the electric vehicle and falls back on the standard talking points she has used in the past. After all that, then Quick asked the same question again, emphasizing the words "make sure" over and over - as if one more time would bring the magic answer. Is there any company out there that can guarantee with rock-solid certainty that they will be profitable five years out? GM may deserve scrutiny for a bit to "make sure" they don't fall back into their old bad habits, but this line of questioning wanted to force the impossible - and perhaps set them up for blow-back, if something bad were to happen down the line. Message sent: Invest at your peril. But isn't every company like that?

Then we turn to the final MSNBC "Hardball" video above - and again, it starts off with "what does this mean for you (Michigan)" and a reference to the taxpayers being paid back in full as a "fair barometer" of success. Right after that though, we go back to the "some people say" question that seeks to paint President Obama with some nefarious motive behind saving the auto industry - which the Governor smacks down with a laugh...

You heard the President at the outset of this conversation where he said that 'Look, I'm already dealing with two wars, I don't want to be in the banking business and I don't want to be in the automotive business', and yet the suspicion lurks in some quarters that he does want to be in all of these things... address that issue from a political standpoint... (Governor interjects at this point)

When President Obama walked into office, the house was on fire. Wall Street, autos, economy bleeding thousands and thousands of jobs, the housing crisis, you name, it was in flames. If you go back to that time (or read Rattner's book) you will clearly see that the White House never wanted to be in the auto business and emphasized that they would be as "hands off" as possible, and the whole affair seemed rather distasteful and a nuisance to him. The only people insinuating that he wanted to be involved were those that were seeking to spread the "socialist" meme - and here it still exists today, even though it was complete and utter bullshit then, and is complete and utter bullshit now. Why bring it up?

Moving on to Bob King's segment, we will give points to MSNBC for bringing up the fact that the Republicans in Congress had blocked the extension of unemployment benefits that day, but the question then became another "some people say" moment...

Do you believe that at any point, the perpetuation of unemployment benefits become a disincentive for individuals to find work? You know that argument and I would love to hear your response... (King interjects at this point)

Yet another right wing talking point, that people who were taking home 3-4 grand a month would just love to drop down and live on $1200 or so and sit around and do nothing and risk losing their home. It's crap, King told him so - and then put in a pitch for public works jobs and building our infrastructure here in America. Oh yeah, he's good, and I'm glad to see him out there whenever the auto industry and media collide.

So all in all, a day spent on defense of talking points that were established by the Republicans long ago, talking points that obviously will not die. One has to wonder though: If the framing on saving the auto industry had initially been one about saving jobs and American manufacturing, a point of pride instead of a point of shame, and these kinds of questions would have been dismissed from the start, would the White House have gained the upper hand on the entire conversation? Hard to tell, but it certainly would have been worth a shot.

Democrats need to learn to play offense, set the tone, stand for something, anything - and hammer it home. On things like this, on other issues as well. If they don't learn that lesson and learn it soon, this will continue to get worse as time goes on, and 2012 will be a gigantic nightmare.

The Republicans have no problem spewing falsehoods and nonsense, why is it that the truth is so hard to sell?