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photos by Lara Shipley

Now, This

June 6th, 2003 · No Comments

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman has a chapter entitled “Now, This…” in which he analyzes what he sees as the deleterious influence of the fragmented, soundbite-sized succession of stories that typify television news. The trend he described there has surely been exacerbated with the explosion of online news sources and 24-hour cable news channels. We’re all accustomed now to a very short news cycle characterized by a small number of “flood the zone” stories.

I got to thinking about the political effect of this. One is that the natural pressure on policy-makers to do something now about any given problem is increased as we come to expect increasingly rapid “new developments.” But there’s a second effect that also tends to work against market liberal perspectives. Our way of looking at the economy tends to focus on process over snapshots, a strain that runs throughout libertarian thought. (Think, for instance, of Nozick’s contrast between “patterened” theories of justice like Rawls’s with his own preferred “historical” conception.) Keynes famously chided classical liberal opponents who harped on the long-term effects of his proposals with the quip: “in the long term, we are all dead.”

There is, of course, something to be said for that. It’s not obvious on face that it mightn’t be better to relieve some concentrated economic pain now at the cost of some market inefficiency spread over the next fifty years—though people of my disposition are inclined to think it’ll usually be a bad tradeoff. Still, the speed of modern media seems to bias our thinking about economic policy pretty decisively in the other direction. That explains why Bush is trying to sell tax cuts, whose growth benefit is typically long-term, as a short run stimulus, which it surely ain’t. (Actually, as Alex Tabarrok observes, it’s really just a “tax shift” because he’s funding it with debt, not spending cuts.)

Ironically, short term information overload worsens Bastiat’s famous problem of the seen and the unseen, precisely because what is present and concrete is so much more clearly and abundantly seen. The surfeit of one type of information crowds out abstract or theoretical information, the kind of information needed to infer what is unseen. The short term benefit of a stimulus, which is real enough, is readily apparent. The focus on the most up-to-the-minute economic data, though, tends to crowd out discussion of policy effects years or even decades down the line.

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