ByPatricio Zenklussen, Maznah Shehzad, Momina Mindeel and Ike WilsonPublished
This article is the result of a collaboration between TPM members and journalism graduate students at NYU. Over the past several months, NYU students from 10 different countries solicited the help of the community in TPM’s member forum, The Hive, to identify stories that could be of interest to TPM readers, but exist outside the range of TPM’s typical coverage areas. During the course of reporting, the students shared their progress with members for feedback and input. The project was intended to be fun, collaborative, and bring a new and valuable perspective to TPM’s community. Members can read more about the project here and we would love to hear your feedback.
Will Stephen leans back in his chair, a pained smile on his face. Now in his fifth season as a writer for Saturday Night Live, Stephen admits the daily challenge of satirizing a figure as bizarre as Donald Trump — a president who feels like the creation of satirists — has grown stale. “I feel angry or sometimes depressed more than I do ready to write or make a joke,” he says.
For those outside the comedy world this may feel like a hollow complaint. In fact, Stephen says the comment he gets most about his job is, “You must be having a ball with all this politics stuff. It must be so fun!” But when part of your job is to point out the ridiculousness of powerful people, to subvert authority by rendering it absurd, a personality like Donald Trump can be overwhelming.
“It’s hard,” Stephen explains. “Part of the fun of political satire in the past has been mocking people’s self-seriousness — getting to the truth of what politicians are trying to hide about themselves. With Bush or Palin or Al Gore or any of them, you’re poking fun at something that they don’t really want you to see. But with Trump, I don’t know that he is that way. He just is a raw nerve. There’s not a lot hidden there in terms of who he is.”
It’s a sentiment many politically oriented comedians share. New York stand-up comic Boris Khaykin says Trump “has been generally bad for comedy.”
Whether you like the president or not, he explains, “there’s a bunch of stuff that’s already funny about him. So it’s hard to do comedy about comedy. It’s blue on blue — it doesn’t come off. And Trump is not only a target, but also a source. So many of these late-night shows, instead of writing jokes, they just play a clip [of the president] and they’re like, ‘Can you believe it?’ And it’s like, ‘We’re three years in. I can believe it.’”
The ways American comedians make fun of Trump are well known and oft-repeated. They react incredulously to the wacky things he says — a preferred tactic of late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, or Trevor Noah. They imitate the way he speaks, sometimes without even changing the content of his statements — something SNL’s Alec Baldwin-led cold opens have been criticized for. They joke about his hair, his skin color, his hands, his bankruptcies, his Twitter typos, his deference to strongmen.
It’s been clear for a while that political satire in the U.S. has a Trump problem. The jokes are getting redundant, but even worse, the president seems immune to them. Even when jabs “work” and Trump feels compelled to respond to them, do those really count as “wins”? In 2016, when enough people made fun of Trump’s small hands, he reacted by assuring Americans — from the Republican debate stage — that there was “no problem” with the size of his penis. The country moved on and Trump won the GOP nomination.
The English author and editor William Cook calls this phenomenon the Trump Paradox: “the more you talk about something, however negatively, the more popular it becomes.” As a result, much of the satire being produced about the president feels toothless and ineffective.
The more you talk about something, however negatively, the more popular it becomes.
But perhaps American political satire is too focused on the president himself. As NYU Journalism graduate students from the U.S., Pakistan, Argentina, and Chile, we thought we could bring an interesting perspective to this question by examining how satire is handled in countries where a history of authoritarian(ish) leadership has forced comedians into alternative plans of “attack.”
Rather than coming straight at the heads of state or impersonating them, we’ve observed that satirists in Pakistan, Argentina, and Chile critique elements of the government and the systems that enabled leaders’ rise to power. They also target the people who surround and abet those leaders. In doing so, they move beyond mere roasting and make more specific, more incisive commentaries about their political circumstances.
Of course, this approach isn’t unique to any particular country, and American satirists can look to it as a path worth further exploration. Some already are. Jason Adam Katzenstein, a cartoonist at The New Yorker, warns that it’s easy to get sucked into doing comedy just about Trump, but that doing so risks viewing the president not “as a symptom of a larger system, because it probably feels better to not examine what got us here and just say, ‘Look at this one ridiculous person.’”
Katzenstein says it’s important for him and his peers to “make jokes in a way where people can direct their attention away from Trump. Having an interest in making work about that other stuff is step #1.” In other words, what if satirists turned their spotlight on society and the culture surrounding Trump rather than on Trump himself?
In the spirit of examining ways to satirize that “other stuff,” we talked to Pakistani and South American comedians about the techniques they employ — and how they fit within the American political comedy landscape.
Satire in Pakistan, marked by the subtle use of irony and symbolism, can only be understood in the context of the country’s long history of political upheaval. Since its independence from the British in 1947, Pakistan has endured several military dictatorships — the most recent of which ended in 2007 — while no democratically elected prime minister has completed a full term. Throughout it all, the military has remained the most powerful institution in the country, able to influence politicians and the media alike.
This has led to a substantial amount of censorship within the media, which is kept under careful watch by authorities. As a result, comedians have to be shrewd about how they approach certain issues, like military rule or Islamization. The underlying theme, of course, is a deep focus on society: questioning widespread beliefs rather than specific institutions or figures.
For me as an African, there’s just something familiar about Trump that makes me feel at home.
In a recent interview, Zeeshan Hussain, a producer of one of Pakistan’s most popular political satire shows, Khabarnaak, highlights how the program’s satire is rooted in the masses. Because certain political or military subjects can’t be targeted directly, satirical attention is turned toward the public. Taboo topics are creatively portrayed through “distant references” to everyday life, and the general public becomes the star (or villain) of the show.
“We don’t attack [targets] directly,” Hussain explains, “but we pick the characteristics of the bureaucracy and assign these attributes to our generic characters.”
For instance, one of Hussain’s skits highlights the consequences of the government’s militarism, as well as the absurdity of allocating more resources to weapons than to basic needs like education — a reality that, he tells us, many in Pakistan accept. It features a jingoistic man explaining the logic behind that kind of resource allocation: if you put money into education, people become more educated and demand more jobs. But spending on weapons preserves the status quo and guarantees “eternal peace.” As Hussain puts it, the segment mocks how “we [starve] to make bombs but then bombs are not used; they’re just shown.”
Sketches like this have made Khabarnaak “Pakistan’s most popular news-based comedy show,” according to Elizabeth Bolton, who penned a recent PhD thesis on Pakistani satire at the University of Texas at Austin. Against the backdrop of political, military, or religious forces who use “all resources at their disposal to muzzle” criticism, Bolton writes, Hussain’s show has managed to play “a key role in the spectrum of news and current affairs analysis.”
There are certainly examples of American comedians taking an artful, subtle look at society to make a point about politics in the age of Trump. Will Stephen singles out SNL’s “Black Jeopardy!” sketch with Tom Hanks, aired weeks before the 2016 election, as a successful commentary on the society that would go on to elect then-candidate Trump.
According to Stephen, that piece “had a thesis to it,” an “original statement”: that disaffected, ignored white American Trump supporters didn’t feel all that dissimilarly to black Americans.
“There was some solidarity there in terms of ‘We’ve been ignored by the elites,’” says Stephen. “That was the thesis of it, and that wasn’t a point that was being made.” Whether it portrays the masses as victims or enablers, some of the best satire takes a look at society to subtly tell a bigger, harsher truth about the reality of power.
The prominent Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar recognizes that every country has its own set of problems, but that they aren’t necessarily unique. For Nazar, that reality offers another way to satirically shed light on hidden truths: drawing international parallels. Directly comparing the situation in one country to that in another allows audiences to look at their circumstances with new eyes.
After the failed Turkish coup attempt in 2016, Nazar depicted Pakistani politicians and citizens condemning the event and expressing their support for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (see Image 1 below). But Nazar observed that many in Pakistan would have actually welcomed the kind of military rule at home that had failed in Turkey (see Image 2 below).
He wanted to point out a hypocrisy he saw among many Pakistanis when it comes to military rule: they realize martial law isn’t an acceptable form of government elsewhere, yet still prefer it for their own country.
“If I was making cartoons in the U.S.,” Nazar says, “I would draw these international parallels.”
It’s a strategy that has met with some success in the U.S. “I think John Oliver does a great job when he talks about American politics because he relates it back to other countries,” says American writer Caitlin Kunkel, co-founder of The Belladonna and co-creator of The Satire and Humor Festival. Oliver, for instance, compared Trump to Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 during the Brazilian election. During the 2015 GOP primaries, Trevor Noah compared candidate Trump to African dictators. “For me as an African, there’s just something familiar about Trump that makes me feel at home,” Noah joked.
Both segments helped American audiences better understand their own politics, and forced them to reckon with its failings.“That was something that made people be like, ‘Oh, yes, that thing where we say we’ll never be like that, we’re actually getting a little closer to that,’” says Kunkel. More work like this would be a welcome, refreshing addition to American satire.
Down in South America, the intertwined satirical traditions of Chile and Argentina are further testaments to the effectiveness of skewering the conditions that give rise to political leaders.
In both cases, as with Pakistan, political turmoil is a key throughline. Both countries went through military dictatorships during the 1970s. Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973 and Jorge Videla’s deposal of Argentine president Isabel Perón in 1976 marked the beginning of a dark era in terms of human rights and freedom of speech. Pinochet’s regime lasted for 17 years and Videla’s lasted seven, leaving behind strong feelings of resentment and polarization that linger today.
The transitions (back) to democracy haven’t been seamless. Argentina has faced a number of debt crises, the most famous of which saw five presidents come and go in just 11 days in 2001. Chile, meanwhile, is currently going through a period of serious social discontent rooted in decades of corruption and political inefficiency.
These common historical lines and sociopolitical problems have paved the way for a common satirical style, focused in large part on skewering society. Instead of throwing daggers at politicians, being able to point and laugh at themselves (and their broader communities) has become a key for many satirists and comedians.
One clear example of this is the Argentine comedian and YouTuber Guille Aquino, who produces sketches about the country’s constantly evolving social, political, and economic situation, as seen from the lives of regular people.
Aquino’s sketches illustrate common, everyday situations that take bizarre, unexpected turns. Be it climate change, fake news, drug use and regulation, or local policies on garbage management, Aquino’s comedy involves real people and society, rather than political leaders. He laughs about people’s hypocrisy, racism, and lack of tolerance. He makes his audience understand that the problems they usually associate with the political class are also present in themselves.
In his sketch titled “Urban Violence,” for instance, Aquino and a taxi driver exchange insults after a near collision. When the comedian tries to deescalate the situation, the driver stops him and says, “What are you doing? You’re breaking the protocol.” To Aquino’s disbelief, the man explains: “This is urban violence, man. This country is going to hell. You have your issues, I have mine, and we solve them by punching each other in the street. That’s how it works, right?” The point Aquino makes is clear: ordinary Argentinians live in a constant state of instability, frustration, and violence.
But perhaps the most prominent feature of modern South American satire is its aggressiveness. Comedians have left behind highbrow, mannered approaches in favor of low blows, nasty images, and offensive messages. It seems the tradition of smart irony and creativity that has defined the form has lost priority to being as harsh as possible.
Baby Etchecopar, a popular far-right monologist in Argentina, has called Nicolás Maduro, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara “sons of bitches” and “pieces of shit.” Meanwhile, satirical media publications like The Clinic in Chile have used aggressive and graphic imagery of ministers, presidents, and political candidates on their covers. Surely these are some of the most extreme cases, but neither Etchecopar nor The Clinic are underground or niche voices. On the contrary, they have large audiences numbering in the tens of thousands, and their commentaries usually resonate heavily on social media.
“These new parameters for what is acceptable in humor have a clear origin in the recent history of dictatorships that we had to endure,” says Mariano Ramos, a cartoonist and screenwriter with more than 20 years of experience making comedy in both Argentina and Chile. “The fear and silence that reigned during the 1970s and 1980s were so strong that once the regimes were over, we just wanted to have fun and do whatever we wanted. We had been with a military boot on our heads for years.”
I hate the civility argument. I think only people in power tell other people to be civil.
Ramos points out that the shift toward a stronger, more aggressive voice was gradual and borne out of a mix of intentional efforts and coincidences. On the latter, he remembers an anecdote: “During the Menem presidency, in the early 90s, I drew an extremely pornographic cartoon that got published in the youth newspaper of the leftist Partido Intransigente. Some days later, in one high school in Buenos Aires, a teenager got some homework about political parties, and in his research, he found the publication with my drawing in it. The kid brought the cartoon to school for his presentation, which resulted in him being expelled from the institution.”
“That small event triggered a discussion on a national level about where the limits were, and what things we were and weren’t able to say in this new era,” he explains. The incident shows how a single piece of satire can move the sociopolitical agenda to new places. Evidently, some of the lasting scars of the dictatorships were fear and censorship dressed up as politeness and correctness. But pushing those boundaries through comedy allowed society to speak up again.
America’s current situation, while still far from any kind of authoritarian regime, might find this case useful: how a renewed sense of freedom of speech can lead to more shamelessness and frankness in political humor, and how that kind of humor can push for change.
In the U.S., few subjects are off-limits and insult comedy is an established form, so taking an aggressive approach is certainly accepted. That said, abusing politicians can get you into trouble. For instance, after Kathy Griffin posted a photo of herself holding up a Donald Trump mask made to look like a severed head, she was essentially blacklisted from Hollywood. Similarly, Samantha Bee came under fire and was forced to apologize for calling Ivanka Trump “a feckless c***.” Even cartoonist Michael de Adder was fired from a Canadian publication for drawing a graphic caricature of Trump golfing near the dead bodies of migrants. The piece made a strong statement about American immigration practices, which was the point, but a cartoonist in another country had to pay the price for it because many in the U.S. felt it crossed a line.
But aggressive satire not only forces the audience to face harsh realities; it also incites an emotional response and challenges the powerful. As Kunkel puts it, “I hate the civility argument. I think only people in power tell other people to be civil. Obviously I don’t want to incite violence, but there comes a point where it’s like, if someone’s doing terrible things and is a huge hypocrite, to protect their image is [dumb]. You have to go past that.”
In the age of Trump, avoiding satire about the president is impossible. As the leader of the free world, he warrants coverage, and his personality and actions provide worthy material to comedians. But the amount of satirical attention being paid to Trump feels skewed. If the aim of satirists, as Ramos suggests, is to “take a stand, listen, and work to help their fellow citizens understand the times they are living in,” then repeatedly fixating on the same tired jokes about Trump isn’t going to do the trick.
The satirical landscapes in our home countries, focused less on leaders and more on the conditions that give rise to them, offer a glimpse of what American satirists might try more of. After all, the targets of Pakistani, Chilean, and Argentinian satire — polarization, inequality, hypocrisy, disillusionment — are not unique to those countries; they exist in their own ways in the U.S. too. A more society-focused approach to satire might force Americans to look inward and reckon with Trump not as a cause, but a symptom of problems of their own making.
Asked about the future of satire in the Trump era, Kunkel expresses cautious optimism. “I don’t think it’s impossible” to create good work, she says. Satirists can confront Trump. “But you often can’t come at it straight on or just do an impression,” Kunkel continues. “You have to critique the people around him, elements of the administration. You have to find more creative ways to pull apart what’s going on. Because it’s not just him, right?”
KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING: What foreign country or satirist do you think American satirists can learn the most from? Let us know in the comments.
This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
The decade that began in 2010 witnessed the gravest threats to the integrity of American democracy since the Civil War. It was the age of extreme polarization and political gerrymandering. It saw an unprecedent intervention in an American presidential election by a hostile foreign power and the advent of a dangerously self-serving president. Now it has ended with only the third impeachment of a president by the full U.S. House of Representatives in history.
In 2010, Democratic President Barack Obama achieved his greatest policy triumph when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. It was the only major social legislation enacted without the support of a single member of the opposition party and Obama paid a political price for this victory.
Obamacare’s opponents, led by a new and vibrant conservative movement that styled itself the Tea Party, dominated public debate and drove approval of the law down to the 40 percent range. The Tea Party advocated limited government, fiscal responsibility, reduced taxes, and its version of traditional Christian values, including opposition to abortion and gay and lesbian rights. Survey data indicated that between 10 and 30 percent of Americans identified with the Tea Party.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and secured unified control of state government in nearly every swing state. They used that power to gerrymander state legislative and congressional districts during the redistricting process that followed the decennial census of 2010. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats won 51 percent of the statewide, two-party congressional vote in 2012, but Republicans captured 72 percent of the state’s 18 congressional seats. In Wisconsin’s 2012 elections for state assembly, Democrats won 51 percent of the vote, but Republicans won 60 of 99 seats.
Legal battles over these gerrymandered maps would play out through much of the decade. When federal lawsuits challenging gerrymandered maps reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019, a 5 to 4 majority ruled that the federal courts had no role to play in adjudicating partisan gerrymandering. Legal challenges would now focus on the state courts, where, Democrats won important victories in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Despite Obama defeating Republican nominee Mitt Romney to win reelection in 2012, Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections of 2014. By this time the Tea Party movement had largely merged into the Republican Party, moving the party to the right and raising political polarization to the highest levels in recent history. Today, the most liberal Republicans in Congress are still more conservative than the most conservative Democrats.
When preeminent conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in February 2016, President Obama nominated circuit court judge Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, which would have shifted the ideological balance on the court from 5 to 4 conservative to 5 to 4 liberal. However, the Republican Senate led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky refused even to give Garland a hearing. His nomination languished until President Donald Trump appointed circuit court judge Neil Gorsuch, which kept in place the Court’s conservative majority.
In 2016 (as I predicted, contrary to the pundits and pollsters) Donald Trump won the presidential election. The Russians, under Kremlin direction, mightily assisted Trump’s campaign by illegally hacking and releasing Democratic emails, placing ads on social media, and deploying trolls and bots to poison political discourse on Trump’s behalf.
Trump appointed right-wing judges to judicial positions and pushed through Congress a massive tax that largely favored corporations and the wealthiest Americans. With few achievements in Congress, however, Trump largely governed by autocratic fiat. He withdrew America from the nuclear weapons accord with Iran, the Paris agreement on climate change, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty that President Ronald Reagan had negotiated with Russia. His revamped immigration policy separated the families of undocumented immigrants, imposed a travel ban on residents of certain foreign nations, seized money from the military to build his border wall, eviscerated clean air and water regulations, and throttled back efforts to control catastrophic climate change.
The president quickly came under suspicion for collusion with the Russians during his presidential campaign. In May 2017, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, admitting that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he did so. The firing led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate charges of coordination with the Russians and obstruction of justice.
To the disappointment of Trump’s critics, Mueller produced an unreadable, 435-page report that was filled with equivocation and double negatives. Attorney General William Barr, a political appointee of President Trump, then poisoned the public dialogue by falsely spinning the report to exonerate Trump of any wrongdoing.
Still, Mueller had documented ten acts of obstruction by President Trump that, according to a bipartisan group of more than a thousand prosecutors, constituted a clear prima facie case of the criminal obstruction. But Mueller refused to take a stand, saying only, “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
Mueller did not charge Trump or his associates with criminal conspiracy with the Russians, but he noted that the campaign welcomed and exploited Russia’s illegal meddling. He found that a lack of witness candor and a flawed production of documents hampered his conspiracy investigation. President Trump refused an in-person interview with the special counsel and answered written questions primarily by saying “I don’t recall.”
Although Democrats had won control of the U.S. House in the 2018 midterms, the party’s cautious leadership declined to follow-up the Mueller Report with an impeachment investigation of the president. Then Trump gratuitously forced the House to act by shaking down the new president of Ukraine, a nation dependent on the U.S., to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and the discredited Russian propaganda ploy that Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hoax concocted by the Democrats and Ukraine.
Chairman Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee has held weeks of hearings on the Ukraine scandal. He submitted a report to the Judiciary Committee which recommended articles of impeachment on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The House’s charges will now be subject to a trial in the Senate under the Constitution. It remains to be seen whether the Republican-controlled Senate will hold a real trial with relevant witnesses or short-circuit the process to exonerate the president.
Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor of History at American University and the author of many acclaimed books on U.S. political history, including White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, FDR and the Jews (with Richard Breitman), and The Case for Impeachment. He is regularly sought out by the media for his authoritative views on voting and elections.
This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Our broken campaign finance system allowed two Soviet-born men to use laundered political contributions to buy an audience with the president, and to make the case for warping foreign policy to advance private personal and political fortunes.
This little-noticed component of the impeachment inquiry offers a snapshot of how wealthy special interests use money to make their voices heard. And it further illustrates how the U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong in decisions like Citizens United that made this big money political spending possible.
In April of 2018, the two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had an intimate dinner with President Donald Trump at the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. They turned the conversation to Ukraine, and urged the President to fire the U.S. ambassador to that country, Marie Yovanovitch.
Parnas and Fruman were indicted on criminal campaign finance charges last month.
According to prosecutors, the pair were pushing for Yovanovitch’s removal “to advance their personal financial interests and the political interests of at least one Ukrainian government official with whom they were working.” Ambassador Yovanovitch was reportedly viewed as an obstacle to Parnas’ and Fruman’s corrupt plans to restructure the state gas company to advance a natural gas import scheme.
So how did this self-interested pair, who have a history of failed businesses and connections to European organized crime, score a personal audience with the President to make this pitch?
They promised a six-figure donation to President Trump’s super PAC, America First Action.
To be sure, not every big donor is buying access to push a corrupt geo-political scheme to undermine U.S. foreign policy. Some donors just want to pay less in taxes. Others push more parochial matters.
But a system that trades six-figure political donations for access means that only the wealthiest few can afford to make their voices heard. The vast majority of Americans will never have hundreds of thousands of dollars to give to the President’s super PAC – and as a result, they’ll never have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the President to describe how, for example, the cost of prescription drugs impacts their family.
In this particular case, Parnas and Fruman bought access with illegal funds. They laundered their $325,000 super PAC contribution through a shell corporation, triggering Campaign Legal Center’s July 2018 complaint, which helped lead to their arrest last month. But if the pair had just given to the super PAC in their own names, their purchase of a Presidential audience would never have drawn prosecutors’ scrutiny.
The cash-for-access transaction itself was perfectly legal, and far too commonplace in our big money-dominated political system.
What’s more, the big money that bought dinner with the President went to a super PAC that was supposedly independent of his campaign. Remember, when the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for corporate-funded super PACs in its Citizens United decision, it did so under the assumption that they’d be “independent” of candidates, and promised that such independence guarded against any risk of actual or perceived corruption. But when President Trump affords direct access to those six-figure donors who give to his “approved” super PAC, that super PAC is anything but independent.
And when only the wealthy few can have their voices heard in our democracy, these transactions sure do look corrupt.
Brendan Fischer is the director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center.
It was 2011 and most of my journalism-major peers were filled with dread over job prospects. Newspapers were shedding staff at a rapid clip and nobody was quite sure what to make of newer digital media outlets like Politico, Talking Points Memo, and the Huffington Post. So when I came across this blog post, I was shocked.
The blog post listed double-digit profit margins for Gannett-owned newspapers large and small across America. This kind of profit margin is rare in most industries — and journalism isn’t known as one in which owners rake in the big bucks.
In the years after those profits were posted, newsroom jobs continued to fall. Recent numbers out from the Pew Research Center found that the number of newsroom employees at newspapers in the U.S. halved between 2008 and 2018, from 71,000 to 38,000.
Given those huge profits in 2008, how in the course of a few years did an entire industry collapse?
You’re likely familiar with the excuses that media executives have provided, generally blaming the decline of print advertising. Over the years Google, Facebook, and Craig Newmark, who founded Craigslist, have all served as scapegoats.
Advertising rates did decline, this is not a lie. But it’s also not the whole truth. The people who own and operate journalistic outlets could have done something to at least mitigate the devastation that came with those falling ad rates.
But, generally speaking, saving journalism was not the goal. Profit was and is the goal.
Even as falling advertising revenues offered a warning of hard times ahead — a canary in the coal mine — owners generally focused on profitability, not sustainability of journalism. The relentless search for profit in the news business continues today, leading to beloved news outlets collapsing left and right.
I firmly believe that until journalists are in some form and fashion in control of the organizations they work for, the cycle will not end. Sure, there are non-profits but, as Nathan J. Robinson explains well here, it’s not just profit that is the problem. It’s ownership.
I’ve long thought it peculiar that news outlets had executives who were not journalists themselves. Journalism is a trade. When I look around at the carpenters or stone workers or lawyers I knew growing up, the tradesmen ran their own companies. They didn’t hire MBAs to come in and run their plumbing operation. I could understand how newspapers and other media had become so large it would require specially trained journalists to manage operations and finance and those sorts of things. But there is really nothing about running a media company that is brain surgery. (I know this from running a media company and also having had brain surgery.) That’s not to say it’s not challenging — it is, but to the degree it is difficult, there is nobody better suited to solve the problems than journalists themselves. As Megan Greenwell wrote at the now sadly defunct Deadspin, “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.”
* * *
The business challenge that faces journalism is not one of technology or “scale,” as we so often hear from media executives. The problem is that journalism is an essential public good that is expensive to produce.
On one hand, we need as much information freely available to the public as possible, but on the other hand, we need to pay for the people and platforms necessary to make it public. Ordinarily, an industry that was critical to the public but was not economically sustainable would be the province of state intervention, like a utility. But of course, the very nature of journalism — which is often adversarial to any institution with power — makes basing the entire infrastructure on government support impractical.
Yet relying on the free market has not worked out well for journalism this decade either. Too often, Jacob Weindling points out in a recent essay on the decline of Deadspin for Paste, we assume the free market will save us. “We have been sold a lie in America, and the lie is that all we need to do is throw more capitalism on a problem and it will solve itself,” he writes.
To believe the free market will save journalism or could save journalism is to fundamentally misunderstand the intent of the free markets as currently constituted. These phrases like “capitalism” and “free markets” are a kind of shorthand to say, “The best products and services will win out. The competition will surely create some winners and losers, but the customers will be the real winners.”
But this is of course complete nonsense.
Let’s start with the basic premise that serving customers is the point. This is not necessarily the case. For decades, it’s been taken for granted that American corporations’ primary responsibility is to the owners, the shareholders — not the customers, not the employees. This widely accepted theory is often called the Friedman Theory, named after economist Milton Friedman, who introduced it in an essay for the New York Times, laconically titled The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits. He did not beat around the bush. The idea is that the executive of a given company is acting as an agent for the investors, and therefore the ultimate responsibility is to increase returns for said investors.
Now, of course, when you’re talking about the news business, one could argue that the best way in the long-term to increase returns for investors is to do really good journalism that people want to support and pay to access. But you have to remember that investors can invest in any public company they want. If you, Media Executive, want to keep their capital in your business, you need to make them happy, and keeping investors happy, the current thinking goes, mostly boils down to one number: Earnings Per Share. This simple number is profit divided by the number of outstanding shares. Investors want to see EPS, as it’s called, going up. The continuing growth of earnings and the beating of expectations is what keeps investors’ money in the company coffers.
It now seems clear that growth in EPS became ever harder for Enron to deliver. So its laser focus switched to looking for accounting fiddles that would make it look as if EPS was going up, and also hive debt off its books. To that end, several off-balance-sheet entities were set up. These were not wholly independent of Enron, but were judged sufficiently separate that their profit or loss did not have to be consolidated into the company’s results. Assets, or portfolios of assets, were then “sold” to these entities.
Again, the point is RETURNS! Capitalism is about returns. It’s not about making the best journalism. It’s not about making the best phone. It’s not about making the best anything. To the extent good products come from capitalism, the goodness of those products is secondary to the pursuit of profit.
Journalism isn’t inherently lucrative. For years now, it hasn’t been terribly lucrative at all. The centrality of pressure to perpetually increase profits is at odds with the purpose of the craft.
When profit and revenue decline in this environment, the next move is often to make cuts to preserve those earnings. You don’t necessarily need more revenue for more profit, you can cut expenses, i.e. people’s salaries or the number of people getting paid salaries. But anyone in journalism knows that when you start to cut the number of journalists, you’re on a slippery slope to oblivion. Over the last 15 years or so, we’ve lost about 2,100 newspapers, and 171 counties in the U.S. don’t even have a paper, according to research by Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism.
The cuts are not stopping. Most of what I’ve written about applies to publicly traded companies. But private equity firms that own journalistic outlets are even more focused on profit. Journalist Ken Doctor has doggedly chronicled the greed and loathing coming from the sector. Alden Capital, the majority owner of the odious Digital First Media, has become a poster child for the destruction. The firm owns daily and weekly newspapers across the U.S., including the Boston Herald, the Denver Post, the Detroit News, the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Today we can reveal some key financial numbers from the very private company that shows just how successful Alden and DFM have been at milking profit out of the newspapers it is slashing to the bone. DFM reported a 17 percent operating margin — well above those of its peers — in its 2017 fiscal year, along with profits of almost $160 million. That’s the fruit of the repeated cutbacks that have left its own shrinking newsrooms in a state of rebellion.
Again, similar to Enron, as the chase for profit intensifies, the shenanigans get wilder. As reported by the Washington Post in April:
Alden Global Capital, a prominent hedge fund that controls more than 100 local newspapers, moved nearly $250 million of employee pension savings into its own accounts in recent years, an unusual move that is triggering federal scrutiny.
The hedge fund, which is the controlling owner of such newspapers as the Denver Post and Boston Herald under the brand MediaNews Group, in some cases moved 90 percent of retirees’ savings into two funds it controlled, according to public records filed with the Labor Department. Most of the money has now been moved back out of the hedge funds.
I mentioned above that in theory it’s all about investors. But when private equity gets involved, even investors stand to lose. But don’t take my word for it. Read what Leon Cooperman, famed billionaire capitalist extraordinaire who as recently as last week took issue with Elizabeth Warren being too mean to billionaires, had to say about another private equity firm that was tied to GateHouse Media, a company that owns hundreds of publications in 38 states:
I know we’re happy to get rid of Fortress, but I got to tell you, and I probably shouldn’t say this but I will say it, because that’s my nature of speaking what’s on my mind.
Basically, I was in the hedge fund business for 26 years. I only got paid when I made money for investors.
The kind of money that Fortress is walking away here with, and I know it’s not your doing. They brought this public in 2014 at $16 a share. The stock is $8.50, and they’re going to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s just morally wrong, and they shouldn’t even take the money, given what they’ve done here.
And here is the real problem: Most of these executives don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know how to operate companies. They don’t know how to make products or services. They don’t know what good journalism is, they don’t care why it’s important. This is why they speak in banal, empty phrases like “we want to make and distribute content that people love” or “we want to make better experiences for our users.” They know how to financially engineer profits through mergers, acquisitions, and laying people off.
* * *
I used to wonder why these people who just want to make money choose an industry that isn’t about making money — that is a public service that often can barely cover its own costs. I think there are a couple reasons.
First, there was a period of about a hundred years that NYU Journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen has called the “Golden Parentheses.” During that time, the news business was booming. This is largely attributable to regional monopolies established by newspapers. Putting an ad in such a publication was the only way for advertisers to reach an audience. This built on the model of the “Penny Press” established by Benjamin Day.
This era led into the venture capital boom days of recent past where it seemed like with enough capital, and some social media sleuthing, you could create a massive media company built on digital advertising. It was an era that gave rise to many of the news websites that have gone under, such as Mic, PandoDaily, and countless others. Obviously, this is fraught with risks from Facebook algorithm changes to realizing that media companies could be more profitable with evergreen, non-news “content.”
Take for example the famed pivot to video that many venture-backed organizations undertook. This was a grasp at salvation based entirely on advertisers’ love of video advertising. There was never any evidence that consumers wanted more video news. They might want video content. But not news.
Mashable laid off its news staff to pivot to video. Vice laid off at least 60 people as it expanded to video. Fox Sports, which I have a hard time believing is short on cash, laid off 20 to expand into video.
The reason why the pivot to video is so important historically — and is now a media business punchline — is because it so clearly illustrated the divergence between doing journalism and driving profit. It also showed how so many of the executives running VC-backed media companies were just chasing the shiny new thing in any attempt to generate the returns necessary to please investors.
But now, we’re getting back to how journalism worked for most of its existence. It’s expensive and it’s a labor of love. If we continue to allow people who do not care about journalism to run our companies, we’re in a lot of trouble.
I don’t have all the answers, I might not even have any. But I’m encouraged by the solutions many have either found or are looking into. The Salt Lake City Tribune recently was approved for non-profit status. Ken Doctor, the journalist who doggedly tracked Alden Global Capital, is starting a new company focused on local journalism, and the corporate structure will be a for-profit public benefit corporation, which means legally, profit is not the only consideration for management to consider. And there are a spate of publications such as my own employer TPM that are owned and operated by journalists.
Journalists need to work together to come up with these models. The future of journalism is challenging and difficult but it doesn’t need to be bleak. Competition and scoops are part of journalism, but we need not let the excessive, cartoonish devotion to competing hold us back. Journalism is at its best when it’s collaborative. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work on the publishing side of the industry should help educate and support journalists who want to make their own publications. We should drop the stupid idea of “entrepreneurial journalism” that implies it’s some kind of capitalist endeavor and simply begin training and teaching journalists about how publications operate, how the finances work, etc.
We got the news this month that GateHouse and Gannett, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country, are joining forces. This is huge news for reporters across the U.S., and their readers too. I’m sure they’ll try some snazzy PR blitz about how they love journalism and Nelly Bly is their hero and they miss Ida Tarbell but don’t let them fool you. From the New York Times article announcing the merger:
Douglas Arthur, an analyst at Huber Research Partners, questioned Gannett’s approach, noting that New Media Investment Group and Gannett had missed revenue projections in the most recent quarter. “The only way they can support it,” Mr. Arthur said, speaking of the newspaper industry in general, “is to cut costs. And it feeds on itself: Subscribers go down, advertisers pay less.”
It feeds on itself. It’s been feeding on itself for more than a decade.
To most Americans today, the name of the country’s 1860s war over slavery seems obvious: the Civil War. You see that name in textbooks, in local historical societies and in reenactors’ clubs, and hear it in radio ads for movies, hamburgers and furniture. That name is so widely used that it can seem inevitable. But in fact, Americans have not always called that conflict the Civil War. They once used lots of other names for it, and those names mattered. Those names captured aspects of the war that Americans now tend to gloss over because they raise big questions about what kind of country we live in. Once the most popular name in the North was The War of the Rebellion, but to white Southerners that name made it too clear who was at fault. By the late 19th and early 20th century, as white Southerners and Northerners looked for ways to paper over some of the past, forget the overthrow of Reconstruction, and adjust to a reunited nation based on segregation and disfranchisement of the former slaves, the name the Civil War became popular as a way of covering up all the messiness and confusion of the conflict.
This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
It should be easy to determine who leads the Department of Homeland Security. But because the Trump administration has repeatedly failed to abide by the advice-and-consent process set out in theAppointments Clause of the Constitution, even Congress isn’t sure. In fact, former acting Secretary of DHS Kevin McAleenan — who announced his resignation on October 11 and left the agency in November — may have been in that role for seven months without any legal authority, meaning many of the actions taken by the department in recent months could be invalid and subject to legal challenge.
In a move that was choreographed to a T, Kim Jong Un’s sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to attend the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea — it was a masterful PR stroke. She became the rock star of the games, with worldwide media recording her every move. This was the new image that Kim wanted to convey, namely, that North Korea was more modern and savvy. The Olympic thaw was openly welcomed by South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who vested virtually his entire presidency on building a so-called peace regime between the two Koreas.
What Moon and Kim, and ultimately President Trump, wanted to overcome was nearly seven decades of entrenched enmity between the two Koreas. Kim’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, launched the Korean War in 1950 that failed to communize the peninsula. But the war resulted in millions of civilian and military casualties. In the 1960s until the 1980s, North Korea tried to incite revolution in the South and undertook numerous terrorist attacks. In 1983, 18 members of then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan’s entourage were killed during a visit to Burma. More heinously, North Korean spies blew up a Korean Air Lines jet in November 1987 that killed 11 passengers and crew.
Even though Kim was reaching out Moon, the fact remained that North Korea has 1.2 million men under arms with a growing nuclear arsenal. South Korea’s 625,000-strong military was become increasingly modernized and buttressed by 28,000 U.S. Forces based in Korea. Was it possible to make real peace between the two Koreas?
This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
For the better part of this year, House Democrats have been consumed by a battle over how best to use their newfound power. One side called for impeachment from the start. The other side insisted that Democrats focus on kitchen table issues like health care. But the choice has always been false; the House can and should do both. In addition to the active impeachment inquiry into Trump’s efforts to influence the 2020 election, there should be a second, no less serious impeachment inquiry into Trump’s efforts to undermine Obamacare.
This piece is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Heading into the 2020 elections, Democrats need to place an emphasis on pro-democracy reforms that cement the right to vote. And if they are able to win back the White House and the Senate, the party must be prepared to take advantage of their progressive majority and pass these policies immediately.
The wage-price spiral narrative took hold in the United States and many other countries around the middle of the twentieth century. It described a labor movement, led by strong labor unions, demanding higher wages for themselves, which management accommodates without losing profits by pushing up the prices of final goods sold to consumers. Labor then uses the higher prices to justify even higher wage demands, and the process repeats itself again and again, leading to out-of-control inflation. The blame for inflation thus falls on both labor and management, and some may blame the monetary authority, which tolerates the inflation. This narrative is associated with the term cost-push inflation, where cost refers to the cost of labor and inputs to production. It contrasts with a different popular narrative, demand-pull inflation, a theory that blames inflation on consumers who demand more goods than can be produced.
As the chart below shows, the two epidemics, wage-price spiral and cost-push inflation, are roughly parallel. Both epidemics were especially strong sometime between 1950 and 1990. These epidemics reflected changes in moral values, indicating deep concerns about being cheated and a sense of fundamental corruption in society. According to the narratives, labor unions were deceitfully claiming to represent labor as a whole, when in fact they were representing only certain insiders. Meanwhile, politicians and central banks were selfishly perpetuating the upward spiral of inflation, which impoverished real working people not represented by powerful unions. There has been a long downtrend in public support in the United States for labor unions, from 72% in 1936 to 48% in 2009, as documented by the Gallup Poll.
These narratives were enhanced by detailed stories that invited angry responses. For example, around 1950 an outrageous story went viral about labor unions’ reframing their wage in terms of miles traveled rather than hours worked. The New York Times described it thus in 1950:
One of the rule changes asked by these two unions is that the pay base for trainmen and conductors on passenger trains be lowered to 100 miles or five hours, from 150 miles or seven and a half hours. The railroads have countered by asking that the basic day’s work be increased to 200 miles. . . . Because of recent technological improvements, including the greater use of diesel locomotives, the speed of passenger trains has been increased, where many passenger train service employes now receive a day’s pay for two and a half to three hours of work. By reducing the number of miles in the basic day to 100, the mileage rate of pay of the passenger train employes would be increased by 50 per cent.
So, the story went, the conductors would have the opportunity to sit down as passengers after working only two and a half hours, long before the trip was over. Such an outrageous demand made the narrative highly contagious, and it is memorable enough to be remembered today.
Labor unions became associated in the public eye with organized crime. For example, Jimmy Hoffa took over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union in 1957, despite corruption charges against him then, and led that union as an absolute dictator. There was for years an ongoing story of his investigation for gangster-like activities, in a probe led by Robert F. Kennedy. Hoffa was convicted of bribery and fraud and went to prison from 1967–71. In 1975 he disappeared after being last seen in the parking lot upon leaving the Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township. Rumors were that he was murdered by rival gangsters. Rumors were that his body “was entombed in concrete at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, ground up and thrown in a Florida swamp, or perished in a mob-owned fat-rendering plant.” These colorful theories, which suggest vivid visual mental images of Hoffa’s ignominious end, led to the contagion rate of the Hoffa epidemic that further discredited labor unions. The search for his body in a garbage dump, an empty field, and elsewhere created news stories until 2013. This was a viral story, part of a constellation of narratives that described labor unions in negative terms, and which impelled many people to see real evil in them.
The wage-price spiral narrative was reflected in actual inflation rates around the world, which tended to be unusually high when the narrative was strong. The World Bank’s Global Inflation Rate peaked in 1980, approximately at the peak of cost-push inflation in the chart above, and it has been mostly on the decline ever since. These epidemics also saw high long-term interest rates, reflecting the inflation expectations engendered by the narrative. Today, inflation is down across much of the world, and long-term interest rates have fallen since the epidemic peaked. The dynamics of this worldwide narrative epidemic likely provide the best explanation for these epochal changes in trend of the two major economic variables, inflation and interest rates.
The end of the wage-price spiral narrative was marked by changes in monetary policy and the advent of newly popular ideas: the independent central bank and inflation targeting by central banks. The independent central bank was designed to be free from political pressures, which organized labor tries to exploit. Inflation targeting was designed to place controlling inflation on a higher moral ground than appeasing political forces.
The moral imperative here was strong. On its face, the wage-price spiral may seem purely mechanical. However, many believed it was caused by the greedy (immoral) behavior of both management and labor. President Dwight Eisenhower referred to the spiral in his 1957 State of the Union address:
The national interest must take precedence over temporary advantages which may be secured by particular groups at the expense of all the people. . . . Business in its pricing policies should avoid unnecessary price increases especially at a time like the present when demand in so many areas presses hard on short supplies. A reasonable profit is essential to the new investments that provide more jobs in an expanding economy. But business leaders must, in the national interest, studiously avoid those price rises that are possible only because of vital or unusual needs of the whole nation. . . . Wage negotiations should also take cognizance of the right of the public generally to share in the benefits of improvements in technology.
Even though 1957 saw only a moderate burst of inflation, from less than zero in 1956 to a peak of 3.7% in 1957 and far smaller than the 23.6% in 1920, it stirred emotions because of the moralizing narrative that attended it. A 1957 editorial in the Los Angeles Times exemplifies the reaction:
What is wrong with our country? A creeping inflation is like a small crack in a dam or dike as it grows menacingly larger by the force of the seeping water. The crack in our national economy is being widened by greed—greed of some leaders of big business and labor as they continue to boost prices and wages, each blaming the other, and neither pausing to realize that the economy of our country is at the breaking point with a crash being inevitable if we do not level off now and hold prices and wages. It may even be too late.
The moralizing in these narratives, spoken by presidents and prime ministers and published and commented on by journalists, gave the U.S. Federal Reserve and other nations’ central banks the moral authority to step hard on the brakes, risking a recession. They did just that, tightening money gradually until the discount rate rose to a peak in October 1957. Allan Sproul, the recently retired president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in 1957 lamented the difficult role of the Fed as the “economic policeman for the entire community.” He noted the blame the Fed gets for the expansion before a crackdown:
As it is, there are times when your Federal Reserve System finds itself in the position of having to validate, however reluctantly, public folly and private greed by supporting increased costs and prices.
Inflation in a Constellation of Injustice and Immorality Narratives
When inflation has been high, many commentators have regarded it as the most important problem facing the nation. Starting in 1935, the Gallup Poll has repeatedly asked its U.S. respondents, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country [or this section of the country] today?” During the era of highest U.S. inflation, from 1973 to 1981, generally more than 50% of respondents responded by saying either “inflation” or “the high cost of living.” This perception appears to have been common across much of the world. Reflecting this view, economist Irving S. Friedman wrote in his 1973 book Inflation: A World-Wide Disaster that the increasing inflation was sending “panic signals throughout the world,” opining that the inflation crisis was as serious a problem as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Inflation was “eroding the fabric of modern societies” and “threatens all efforts to keep the international monetary system from fragmenting into hostile forces.”
The discourse seemed to want to fix blame on some segment of society, either labor or business, for the inflation. Popular syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris wrote in 1975:
What is so frustrating about this kind of thing is the difficulty in pinning down the culprits, if any . . .
Either somebody is lying, or the whole economic process doesn’t make sense.
If labor is getting “too much,” why are most working families struggling to make ends meet?
If grocers are “profiteering,” why do they get glummer as prices go higher?
Where does the buck stop? Nobody knows. And so each segment blames another for the vicious spiral, and each justifies its own increases by pointing to its own rising cost of doing business.
the market no longer seems to control prices when they keep escalating despite reduced consumption.
Some strange new twisted law appears to be operating in place of the classical formula of the “free market.”
I am not versed enough in economics to understand what is going on; neither are most people.
In contrast to the 1920s, there were now multiple possible sources of evil behind inflation, not so focused on evil businesses of various kinds, but now also on evil labor.
In my 1997 study of public views of the inflation crisis in the United States, Germany, and Brazil, conducted after the worst of the inflation had subsided but during a period in which people remained concerned about inflation, I surveyed both the general public and, for comparison, university economists. My research uncovered differences in narratives across countries, across age groups, and, particularly, between economists and the general public.
For the most part, the economists did not think that inflation was such a big deal, unlike Irving Friedman, who was writing for the general public. Meanwhile, although U.S. consumers did not agree on the causes of the inflation, they were nonetheless angry about it. When asked to identify the cause of the inflation, their most common response was “greed,” followed by “people borrow or lend too much.” In specifying the targets of their anger, the U.S. respondents listed, in order of frequency, “the government,” “manufacturers,” “store owners,” “business in general,” “wholesalers,” “executives,” “U.S. Congress,” “greedy people,” “institutions,” “economists” “retailers” “distributors,” “middlemen, “conglomerates, “the President of the United States,” “the Democratic party,” “big money people,” “store employees” (for wage demands that forced price increases), their “employer” (for not raising their salary), and “themselves” (for being ignorant of matters).
In addition, unlike economists, the general public believed in a wage lag hypothesis: the idea that wage increases would forever lag behind price increases, and therefore that inflation had a direct and long-term negative impact on living standards. In short, the wage-price spiral offered a geometrical mental image of one’s economic status spiraling down for as long as strong aggressive demands of labor kept it happening.
In some ways the 1957–58 recession differed substantially from earlier recessions. It did not have the character of a buyers’ strike, as the Great Depression did. In fact, sales of luxury items remained very strong. Anger was not so much directed against “profiteers,” and there was little shame in living extravagantly. The alarmist talk about the wage-price spiral did not focus anger onto the rich. Rather, sales of postponable everyday purchases suffered more.
At the same time, the public sensed that no feasible government policy could stop the wage price-spiral. The earlier recessions of 1949, 1953, and 1957 had left inflation a little lower, but only temporarily. The lingering narrative of the Great Depression suggested to the general public that it was perhaps too great a risk to try to control inflation by starting a bigger recession. That idea was part of the popular conception of the wage-price spiral model, that the nation should base all of its economic decisions on the assumption that inflation will get worse and worse.
Angry at Inflation
Out-of-control consumer price inflation has occurred many times throughout history, and the phenomenon has always induced anger. The loss of purchasing power is extremely annoying. But the question is this: At whom should the public direct its anger? Anger narratives about inflation reflect the different circumstances of each inflationary period. By studying these narratives, we can see the effects of inflation and how they change through time.
The most extreme cases of inflation tend to happen during wars. When governments are in trouble, they may not be able to collect taxes fast enough to pay for the war, and in desperation they resort to the printing press for more money. But the stories may not resonate, and the public may not see or understand what is happening. That is, narratives that blame the government for the inflation may not be contagious during a war. Instead, it is more likely that people want to blame someone else. Businesspeople, who are staying home safely while others are fighting, are a natural target of narratives.
We saw the remarkable epidemic of the word profiteer during and just after World War I. People were very angry that some businesspeople were made rich by the war, and the result was the imposition of an excess profits tax (not only during World War I but also during World War II). Such anger against the people who get rich during wartime is a perennial narrative, not limited to the twentieth century. For example, there was anger during the U.S. Civil War (1861–65) at those who profited from the war, but it wasn’t directed at business tycoons creating inflation to make large profits. The narratives were different. Consider, for example, this sermon by Reverend George Richards of the First Congregational Church of Litchfield, Connecticut, on February 22, 1863:
How, in contrast with the greedy speculators, in office and out of it, who have prowled, like famished wolves, round our fields of carnage—stealing everything they could lay their hands on—robbing the national treasury—purloining from the camp-chest—pilfering from the wounded in the hospitals—appropriating to themselves the little comforts meant for the dying, if not stripping the very dead!
During the 1917–23 German hyperinflation, the inflation rate was astronomical, and not due to any war. Prices in marks rose on the order of a trillionfold. And yet many people were unable to identify the malefactor who was causing inflation. Irving Fisher, an American economist who visited Germany at the time, found that Germans did not blame their own government, which had been printing money excessively. Fisher wrote:
The Germans thought of commodities as rising and thought of the American gold dollar as rising. They thought we [the United States] had somehow cornered the gold of the world and were charging an outrageous price for it.
As of this writing, there is some suggestion of resurgence in the strength of labor unions, and of public support for them, in the United States. The wage-price spiral narrative does not seem poised to reappear. Inflation in the United States and other countries seems unusually tame. However, a mutation of the narrative could appear if inflation begins to creep up. The public tends to watch consumer prices closely, because of its constant repetition of purchases. The wage-price spiral narrative, or some variation on that theme, could again create a strong impulse for economic actors to try to get ahead of the inflation game. It could give them newfound zest in this effort by bringing a moral dimension into the mix, a perception of true evil in inflation, personified by certain celebrities or classes of people.
Robert J. Shiller is a Nobel Prize–winning economist, the author of the New York Times bestseller Irrational Exuberance, and the coauthor, with George A. Akerlof, of Phishing for Phools and Animal Spirits, among other books (all Princeton). He is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University and a regular contributor to the New York Times. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. Twitter @RobertJShiller