Too Soon?

Some of my favorite people seem to be producing end-of-year content. I assume (for example) George F. Will is looking to spend some time away from his keyboard, with friends, family, and a stiff drink or five. So in the WaPo he bids Farewell to a strange year.

The strangeness of 2022 was exemplified by the extravagant investment of time, brain cells and media passion in fretting about Twitter. This medium, which humanity progressed without for 10 millennia, suddenly seemed to some worrywarts as vital as oxygen and proteins, and as perishable as the planet. Progressives, constantly hungering for cataclysms (“Democracy is dying!” “Earth is boiling!”), worried that an end of politically motivated, government-influenced curating of content on Twitter, which is a 16-year-old adolescent, might doom this 246-year-old nation. Only 23 percent of Americans, disproportionately progressives, use Twitter, and 25 percent of the 23 percent generate 97 percent of the tweets.

Elon Musk’s culling of Twitter employees so terrified Robert Reich, the former labor secretary’s numeracy lapsed: Musk, Reich tweeted, “fired half of Twitter’s workforce and drove off even more.” The president’s arithmetically challenged press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said her boss has created “ten thousand million jobs,” 2 billion more than the world’s population.

I assume we'll see Dave Barry's take on 2022 pretty soon, but Mr. Will will do for now. Here's hoping you can evade the WaPo paywall. (Hint: disable JavaScript.)

Briefly noted:

  • Astral Codex Ten makes a bold claim: The Media Very Rarely Lies. Thesis:

    [T]he media rarely lies explicitly and directly. Reporters rarely say specific things they know to be false. When the media misinforms people, it does so by misinterpreting things, excluding context, or signal-boosting some events while ignoring others, not by participating in some bright-line category called “misinformation”.

    Scott looks at InfoWars, shooting some fish in that barrel. So let's skip down to the "respectable" media malpractice:

    I criticized this story - repeated by Mic, New Republic, and the Washington Post - saying that only 0.01% of welfare users tested positive for drugs. If true, welfare recipients would use drugs at less than 1% of the rate of the general population - and, the articles heavily implied - conservatives worried about people spending their welfare money on drugs were therefore unscientific and bigoted. None of the stories mentioned that the “test” was just asking the welfare recipients whether they were taking drugs, with the threat of taking their welfare away if they said yes, and no attempt to check whether or not they were lying. A few of the articles mentioned a different attempt at urine drug tests, which only a few recipients failed - but didn’t mention that they had the option of not taking the drug tests and that many people (probably including all the drug users) chose not to take it. Some would say this is important context! But again, there are no outright lies - 0.01% was the true result of this (very stupid) test.

    Or consider this New York Times article (which I’ve also criticized before): Free Market For Education: Economists Don’t Buy It. It said that only 36% of economists on a survey supported school vouchers - and if even economists don’t support a free market policy, surely that policy must be very stupid indeed. Not mentioned in the article: only 19% of economists in the same survey opposed school vouchers. The majority described themselves as uncertain - but among those who expressed an opinion, nearly twice as many were pro as con. Again, some might say this was important context. But NYT didn’t lie outright; they reported the headline number correctly.

    It will behoove us to turn up our skepticism filters for 2023. Up to 11.

  • Veronique makes another desperate plea for fiscal sanity from our elected representatives: Congress Has a Fiscal Road Map -- It Just Needs to Use It.

    Dealing with high inflation and an increasingly shaky economy, Americans are forced to make tougher spending choices. With public debt at an all-time high, government should do the same. This feat isn't that hard now that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a series of budget options showing Congress how to do it.

    It's worth repeating that maintaining spending at the current level is not a viable option. Given the dramatic increase in annual federal government spending over the next 30 years — from 22.3% of GDP to 30.2% — combined with federal tax revenues that have remained fairly constant at around 19%, CBO projects that future deficits will explode. It's forecasted to triple from 3.7% of GDP today to 11.1% in 2052. Over the next 10 years, primary deficits (deficits excluding interest payment on the debt) amount to $7.7 trillion. Meanwhile, deficits with interest payments total $15.8 trillion — roughly $1.6 trillion a year.

    Should you want to peruse the CBO's budget options, here you go: Options for Reducing the Deficit, 2023 to 2032--Volume I: Larger Reductions and Options for Reducing the Deficit, 2023 to 2032--Volume II: Smaller Reductions

  • Brian Albrecht takes a peek at The FTC’s Misguided Case Against Meta.

    Lina Khan has been an outspoken critic of Big Tech since her law school days, demonstrating a singular focus on the big bad guys—first Amazon and then others. Now, as the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, she has the chance to test her antitrust theories in court. But the FTC’s ongoing challenge against Meta, the parent company of Facebook, reveals the weakness of going after Big Tech in any way possible.

    Last fall, Meta announced it would acquire Within, best known for its fitness app Supernatural. In July, the FTC sued to block the sale. But the FTC is making a much different argument from what we normally see in antitrust fights, one that is on shaky grounds from the perspective of economic theory.

    Typically, the kinds of mergers that competition authorities like the FTC find most concerning are “horizontal” mergers among competing firms that sell the same products or services. When the publishing giants Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster wanted to merge, the Justice Department moved to block the deal on grounds that it would reduce competition for certain authors’ manuscripts. If the FTC challenges the proposed merger of two grocery stores, as it may with Kroger and Albertsons, it will be because it believes the combination will result in less competition.

    But Meta and Within don’t compete. Meta makes virtual-reality headsets and Within makes virtual-reality apps. Meta’s hope is that the addition of Within will spur interest in the company’s efforts in the “metaverse,” a catchall term for a host of VR and augmented-reality products and services that might hypothetically become connected in much the way the internet is. Meta already has gained recognition in the VR industry for developing the highly successful Quest 2 VR headset. In addition to hardware, the company increasingly has been entering the VR software and gaming sector. The FTC’s initial complaint charged that Meta’s Beat Saber game, which focuses on music, competes with Within’s Supernatural, which is a fitness app, but an amended complaint dropped those claims.

    Albrecht's conclusion: the FTC's case "appears to be driven more by Khan’s desire to bring Big Tech down a peg than by sound economic analysis."