Monday, March 20, 2017

Escaping Spin Zones and Echo Chambers

“My rule of thumb is that the more emotional I feel about a headline/news article (either in agreement or the other way), the more carefully I should consider bias/source/etc.”
That’s a comment following a friend’s Facebook post. My friend—one of my favorite people in the world, but we pretty much never talk politics—had shared someone else’s post a couple of days earlier about the Trump budget cruelly cutting funding for Meals on Wheels, so the elderly will starve.

But my friend got additional info, and posted it. And suggested,

Anytime I post something that you suspect may be the product of either media spin or an echo chamber, please feel free to send me information on the other side of the story. I want people to be aware, but I want that awareness to be accurate.
Meals on Wheels image from IMGH

Slashing Meals on Wheels

The additional information my friend shared comes from Mother Jones, not exactly a conservative source, but the blogger, Kevin Jones, was looking at the accusation and saying, “They have too much animal shrewdness to do this even if they wanted to.” So he looked a little closer. And here’s how he describes what really happened:

1.       The Department of Housing and Urban Development runs a program called Community Development Block Grants. It's exactly what it sounds like. It provides funds to states that they can use for a variety of approved purposes. 
2.       Last year, the Obama administration recommended cutting its budget from $3 billion to $2.8 billion. 
3.       This year, [White House budget chief Mick] Mulvaney proposed that the program be eliminated entirely. Here's what the Trump budget has to say about it:
Eliminates funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, a savings of $3 billion from the 2017 annualized CR level. The Federal Government has spent over $150 billion on this block grant since its inception in 1974, but the program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results. The Budget devolves community and economic development activities to the State and local level, and redirects Federal resources to other activities.
4.       Some bright bulb noticed that a few states use a small portion of their HUD CDBG money to fund Meals on Wheels. Actually, small isn't the right word. Microscopic is the right word. Elderly nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels receive about $700 million from other government sources—most of which aren't targeted one way or the other in the Trump budget—but hardly anything from CDBG grants….
That’s a long way of saying the Trump budget recommends cutting the CDBGs, because that program has failed after 40+ years of giving it the benefit of the doubt. In the unlikely event that any Meals on Wheels activity is affected anywhere, the state and local governments have other sources to use—and (he doesn’t mention) private donations. I know I get regularly reminded by Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston of the need to donate to Meals on Wheels. I was unaware that any government money went to the Houston program—I’m not even sure whether it does here.

Logically, don’t you think if good people are made aware that elderly people are starving, they will step up to prevent that tragedy? Isn’t it the long way around to say we want the furthest-away level of government to tax us and divvy up our money, to pay lots of bureaucrats to then filter the money back to the states in the hopes some of it might go to help those who need it?

Ditching After-School Programs

Back to that challenge of getting the right information. Another inflammatory headline, from the Washington Post, read, “Trump budget casualty: After-school programs for 1.6 million kids. Most are poor.”  The piece begins with this hand-wringing:

Every weekday, 700 children from some of the poorest parts of the Atlanta area stay after school for three hours with Wings for Kids, a program that aims to bolster not only academic performance, but also social skills, relationships with caring adults and a sense of belonging at school.
The kids get a safe and enriching place to spend the afternoon and early evening, and their working parents get child care. But now, Wings for Kids and thousands of programs like it are on the chopping block, threatened by President Trump’s proposal to eliminate $1.2 billion in grants for after-school and summer programs.
It’s hard to argue with good intentions. But, as we know here at the Spherical Model,

Whenever government attempts something beyond the proper role of government (protection of life, liberty, and property), it causes unintended consequences—usually exactly opposite to the stated goals of the interference.
So if you care about kids, a government program is least likely to help. As it turns out, there is evidence that the program wasn’t merely wasteful; it was harming kids. The Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal tells us the program has been failing since it was begun in 1998. But because no one wants to cut funding for helping at-risk kids, Congress has continued to fund it. The program, measured by comparing participating students to similar students not in the program,

·         Failed to impact homework, on 21 or 22 outcomes.
·         Had harmful impacts on academic achievement in reading and English, and no positive impact on other academic subjects.
·         Had harmful impacts on behavior, doing more harm than good on 6 of 12 outcomes.

Is there a better solution? Probably a non-governmental one. Definitely a non-federal-government one.

Killing Big Bird

While we’re looking at heart-wrenching headlines, here’s an infographic about cutting federal funding for PBS—which is sometimes spun as “killing Big Bird.” Notice that each of these items shows a high demand for a desired product. In a free market, you don’t need government to pay for something that people are willing to buy.

infographic found here

The claim is that PBS is “free” and “non-commercial.” But it isn’t actually commercial-free. There are ads at the top (and often bottom) of every hour, every program. Each time it says, “Funding for Public Broadcasting is provided by….” And there are pledge drives—which are “pay for our product” pitches long enough to make up for any non-ad time.

One argument has been that government funding makes PBS free to do things that aren’t appealing to the masses. Except that, their other argument is that they do appeal to the masses. And, I don’t know if they’ve noticed, but we’re not limited to three commercial stations plus PBS anymore; there are plenty of niche markets, doing documentaries and limited interest programming. The others all manage to do it without government funding.

So, if PBS is of value, it will survive a budget cut from the federal government. No one is killing Big Bird. No one is doing anything but suggesting PBS should compete in the marketplace like every other broadcast outlet.

So, if you see an emotional headline, chances are that’s not news; that’s spin designed to elicit the emotion, so that you will jump to a conclusion and not think. If you feel that gut-wrenching going on, go find some more accurate sources.

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