Saturday, October 02, 2004

Controlled, or Otherwise, Professor?

More Substance, Please...--

Brad DeLong

Never let it be said that the Fly Under the Bridge Academy doesn't aim to please its devoted readership.

Semi Daily Journal has complaints with Michael Kinsley:

Michael Kinsley talks to CJR Campaign Desk about the problems of American journalism in a way that strikes me as highly evasive. He says: "The biggest problem is -- and I don't know what the solution is, so it's not a criticism, as much as it is a puzzle -- is that the conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie." But he does know what the solution is. We all know what the solution is.
Let's make this concrete. Let's consider the Bush administration's statements ....

Knock me over with a feather!

I wonder though if the problem might not lie elsewhere. Say, as in what the connection is between dinosaurs, Mom and Pop groceries, family hardware stores, and the corner pharmacy. For when Michael Kinsley says:

...the conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie. And they require balance, which is often just not justified by reality. The classic thing is the Swift Boats. If you follow what all the papers say, they inch close to saying what they really think by saying, "it's controversial," or "many have challenged it," euphemisms like that.

Putting aside the opportunity to say--as Steve Martin did to a naked Darryl Hannah walking alongside him in the bushes--Oh, irony...not many people do irony anymore. I'll instead invoke Friedrich Hayek. (For the diligent students, here's the more rigorous version of the story)

The Swift Boaters actually are a good example--as was Dan Rather's forged memo fiasco, and (still in progress) the merciless pounding John Kerry is taking on the internet about the silly things he said in the recent debate. But, the lesson from the example isn't what Kinsley thinks it is.

It's that the superior volume of information available from millions of sources is going to swamp that available to individual reporters. Journalism, as it's been practiced, will sooner or later disappear because it's inefficient. With modern communication technology, speedy, detailed, highly specific information, will outcompete multi-million dollar network anchormen, and the ink-stained wretches pounding reportorial beats.

Back in the days when John Kerry was fabricating war wounds to relieve himself of combat duty, even large chain grocery stores, and their corporate suppliers--especially, the one which formed the basis of John Kerry's second heiress wife's fortune--had preposterously primitive inventory control systems.

Many stores didn't even have business telephones, but relied on a pay phone inside the store to phone in orders to grocery wholesalers. Or they filled out order forms and mailed them. The basis of the order was direct personal observation by the shelf stockers on what products they were running low on. Iow, judgment calls.

Let's repeat that, slightly altered: "direct personal observation by X on what Y they were Z-ing. Iow, judgment calls."

The only difference between olden days' groceries and today's journalism is that the shelf stockers and their managers had much better-informed judgments. That, and their jobs depended on their getting it right. (No grocery store manager would have survived the kind of humongous error Dan Rather and Mary Mapes made about George W. Bush's flying career.)

Well, one fine day an industrious young man from Missouri--who had grown up in a house without indoor plumbing--arrived in New York City to take an executive position with AT&T. He was told that; AT&T wasn't really making any money off agriculture. It was a big industry, and maybe there was some way for the Bell System to cash in on that.

He spent several weeks researching the question (i.e., he went out and talked to grocery store managers, warehousemen, and food producers and packagers). Everyone told him their biggest headache was inventory control.

He saw his opportunity: Move useful knowledge more quickly and accurately to reduce waste, increase efficieny, and thus raise profits. With the side effect of lower prices, and greater varieties of food available to consumers.

Thus was born the use of the bar code for groceries. And not long after, virtually every other industry. That's going to happen to CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, FOX, the NY Times, Newsweek...., too. Resistance is futile.

Odd that a professional economist didn't see this being Kinsley's substantive (note my W-like devotion to being on message) error...before a mere economic hobbyist did.

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