Five years after the collapse and bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, media are turning a blind eye to persistent economic inequality and poverty, and whitewashing the effects of austerity on preventing economic growth.
September 15 marked the fifth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank whose bankruptcy set off a global financial crash and dramatically accelerated a recession that began in the United States in December 2007. For nearly two years, the American and global economies were marked with enormous job loss, a collapse of housing and investment values, and the looming prospect of economic depression. Five years later the economy has yet to fully recover.
In the past five years, in large part thanks to unprecedented government intervention, financial markets have more than recovered from the 2008-2009 collapse. Since bottoming out on March 9, 2009, investment markets are up across-the-board. The Dow Jones industrial average crossed the 15,000 point threshold on May 7 for the first time ever and currently sits near its all-time high set on August 2. The other major indices are doing just as well. The S&P 500 crossed the 1,700 point threshold on August 2, when the NASDAQ also set a new 13-year high.
Corporate profits have ballooned along with the soaring stock market. CNNMoney reported in December 2012 that quarterly corporate profits set a new record, but it also noted that workers' wages had "fallen to their lowest-ever share of GDP." When Business Insider reported on the same phenomenon in April, profitability had continued to rise as wages continued to fall. Wage growth has largely been captured by the highest earners.
The top end of the economy has recovered from the collapse and recession, but other indicators remain stuck. Stagnant and falling wages contribute to growing economic inequality and diminish the purchasing power of the American consumer economy. The Economic Policy Institute detailed the effect that a decade of wage stagnation has had on the shrinking middle class and swollen ranks of working poor.
Unemployment, while falling, remains a drag on economic growth and has remained higher than pre-recession levels thanks largely to policy decisions in Washington.
Economist Jared Bernstein notes that poverty rates have barely fallen since the end of the recession, yet another indication that the growth seen over the past several years is not reaching the broader economy.
The economy is growing, but media have done a poor job acknowledging the causes and symptoms of lingering structural inequality. Five years after the Lehman Brothers collapse, media have been complicit in exacerbating structural inequalities by failing to cover the issues or grant a voice to groups that continued be to economically disadvantaged.
Fox News' Neil Cavuto continued to ignore the economic factors driving the growth in poverty while lamenting the increased reliance on nutrition assistance among low-income individuals.
On the September 10 edition of Fox News' Your World, Cavuto and guest Hadley Heath of the right-leaning Independent Women's Forum offered a context-free critique of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to derisively as "food stamps." During their exchange, Cavuto focused his attention on the growth of enrollment in SNAP over the past few years, stating "Americans are eating up food stamps like never before" while lamenting that nearly one in five Americans receives some degree of nutritional assistance.
Once again, the right-wing media proves that it simply has no clue how anti-poverty programs function.
At no point in the segment did Cavuto or Heath make any mention of the catastrophic recession -- from which the economy is still recovering -- that drove millions of Americans into poverty and reliance on government assistance to avoid food insecurity. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nutrition assistance has grown in recent years in response to economic hardship and a weakened recovery. From CBPP:
The recent caseload growth resulted primarily from more households qualifying because of the recession and more eligible households applying for help. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has confirmed that "the primary reason for the increase in the number of participants was the deep recession...and subsequent slow recovery; there were no significant legislative expansions of eligibility."
In addition to whitewashing the effects of the recession on SNAP enrollment, the segment included a misleading graphic, which seems to show a dramatic increase in trafficking, fraud, and abuse in SNAP:
According to the latest trafficking report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
Although trafficking does not represent a cost to the Federal Government, it is a diversion of program benefits. Benefits are intended to help low-income households access a nutritious diet, and trafficking impedes the program's mission and undermines its integrity
The gross value of SNAP trafficking has increased from $330 million in 2006-2008 to $858 million in 2009-2011, according to the USDA. However, the actual rate of trafficking has remained at near historic lows. Fraud and abuse increased from 1.0 percent overall from 2006-2008 to 1.3 percent overall from 2009-2011.
Of course, even these historically low levels of fraud and abuse are fair game in the right-wing media. On the August 19 edition of Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade dramatically exaggerated a 0.3 percentage point increase in the rate of fraud and abuse. On the August 8 edition of Your World, host Eric Bolling questioned the veracity of the most-recently available abuse rate, over-estimating it by 5,000 percent.
Nutrition assistance has long been a favorite object of attack and ridicule in the right-wing media. The continued attacks emboldened the Republican-led House of Representatives to propose cutting $40 billion out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next 10 years, despite the harm it would cause to millions of working Americans, retirees, and children.
The Wall Street Journal completely ignored the lingering effects of fiscal austerity in its synopsis of the catastrophic recession and sluggish recovery witnessed over the past five years.
In an article titled, "Financial Crisis: Lessons of the Rescue, A Drama in Five Acts," the Journal analyzed why the myriad government interventions did not create a dramatic economic turnaround with full employment and rising incomes. From the September 8 article:
Americans could rightly wonder why things are still so bad and ask if anything could be been done differently--some policy pursued, some step avoided--to have eased the prolonged economic pain.
After briefly summarizing the Bush and Obama administration's handling of the financial and auto bailouts, the Journal turned its attention to the perceived "failure" of fiscal and monetary stimulus in the wake of the recession.
Mr. Obama won congressional approval of tax cuts and spending increases that, by CBO's latest reckoning, added up to $830 billion over 10 years. The Fed cut short-term interest rates to zero in December 2008 and, nearly five years later, is promising to leave them there for another few years. Figuring that wouldn't be sufficient, it printed, electronically, about $2.8 trillion to buy bonds to push long-term rates down, an unprecedented show of monetary force.
Yet each year for the past few has opened with forecasts that this will be the one that the U.S. economy grows at 3% or better; each year so far has disappointed. CBO estimates that U.S. output of goods and services will be below its potential until 2017. Unemployment remains at levels once seen only in recessions.
In this light, the fiscal and monetary stimulus efforts look like failures, as Republicans frequently observe. Mr. Geithner points to unremitting bad luck: the European sovereign-debt crisis; the disruption following Japan's tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
Top Obama administration and Federal Reserve officials say today they would have preferred more government spending to make up for the shortfall in demand from the private sector.
The WSJ's recollection of economic history failed on two main points: ignoring the economic debate around the stimulus packages, and completely dismissing the lasting effects of Republican-led austerity measures.
First, the article overlooked the fact that the fiscal stimulus programs were likely too small to turn the economy around on their own. The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contributed $152 billion and $831 billion, respectively to recovery efforts. The bulk of that investment went to one-time personal and corporate tax credits, with remaining spending spread out over the next 10 years.
The magnitude of these programs was hotly contested in Washington, but many economists argued that neither stimulus went far enough. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argued in January 2009 in The New York Times that the proposed Obama stimulus, then estimated to be a $775 billion package, was far too small.
Krugman even predicted that the Obama plan might only reduce the unemployment rate to 7.3 percent, where it stands today, a level that "could easily be spun by critics as a failure."
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the WSJ failed to acknowledge that, starting in 2011, the Keynesian interventions installed by both the Bush and Obama administrations were replaced by unprecedented fiscal austerity and budgetary constraint.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), the first priority of a newly minted and deficit-scared Republican House majority, installed immediate and future budget cuts that out-weighed the combined Bush and Obama stimulus acts.
According to analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the BCA reduced discretionary spending by "more than $1 trillion over the ten years from 2012 through 2021" while also establishing a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction with the mandate to reduce the federal deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over the same period. When that committee failed to arrive at a legislative solution, automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration" went into effect.
According to further analysis from the CBPP, Congress and the president had already agreed to more than $1.5 trillion in 10-year discretionary budget cuts by November 2012.
The WSJ's lament on the current state of the economy, which it perceives to be mired in perpetuity, made zero mention of these facts. It also fails to recognize what others have come to accept; fiscal austerity and paranoid deficit-constraint is hurting economic growth. The evidence is even more pronounced in Europe, where austerity-driven policymakers faced little progressive economic resistance, and the International Monetary Fund has recommended a reversal of policy to get back on track.
The problem plaguing the American economy is not the failure of stimulus; it is the presence of austerity.
Fox News set an unreasonably high standard for weekly jobless claims, maintaining the network's penchant for working political spin and misinformation into even the most straightforward news segments.
On the September 5 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy delivered an otherwise straight news report on the Department of Labor's latest release of weekly first-time unemployment claims. Doocy correctly noted that weekly claims stood at 323,000 and that claims were down from the previous week and lower than economists had forecast.
Doocy then contributed his own editorial commentary, noting that jobless claims were still more than 300,000 while adding, "that is a lot".
With regards to labor market indicators, the fact that weekly claims still stand above 300,000 is not alarming, and historically is not "a lot" as Doocy claims. In fact, over the past three decades, weekly claims rates have typically been far above the arbitrary 300,00 threshold.
Furthermore, economist Frank Lysy argues that a jobless claims rate of 310,000-320,000 per week is evidence of an economy "close to full employment."
Doocy's comment illustrates the long-standing Fox tradition of shifting the goalposts on important labor market indicators. The network is not ashamed to set unreasonable standards to cast positive indicators in a negative light.
Earlier this year, Fox's coverage of jobless claims dwelled on the number 375,000. Time and again hosts and guests have claimed, "Economists say that weekly claims must consistently fall below 375,000." In 2012, Fox Business anchor Cheryl Casone argued that the standard for a healthy labor market would be 200,000 or lower -- a level that has not been reached since 1970.
The current four-week rolling average stands at 328,500 claims, down from the previous week and still near a six-year low set last month.
Print media regularly overlook issues of structural economic inequality in stories concerning low wages, poverty, or disadvantaged groups at the local level, a lack of coverage that aligns with similar documented trends in national cable news.
A Media Matters analysis of print coverage from 12 major newspapers over the past three months found that economic inequality received inadequate attention. Only 19 percent of print coverage of impoverished and low-income Americans highlighted the widening wealth and income gap in the United States. Of the selected print outlets, The Boston Globe performed the best in its coverage, with 28.6 percent of stories making significant mention of economic inequality. The Denver Post performed the worst, with just 4 percent of stories making significant mention of inequality.
Media coverage of poverty often goes no further than a passive acknowledgement of disadvantaged groups; little attention is paid to the mechanisms that trap Americans in poverty.
Despite the deficiency in media coverage, economists have frequently warned about the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The Economic Policy Institute detailed the effect that a decade of wage stagnation has had on the shrinking middle class and swollen ranks of working poor.
The negative relationship between stagnant wages and growing economic inequality is well-established. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has tracked and categorized this relationship for several years. In 2004 and 2007, CBPP economists noted that the share of economic productivity going to wages and income was at record low levels. By 2010, a CBPP analysis of Congressional Budget Office data revealed how decades of wage stagnation and top-heavy tax cuts drove economic inequality to new heights.
According to the CBO, from 1979 to 2007 the top one percent of income earners have seen their after-tax share of total income rise by more than 120 percent, while the bottom 20 percent of earners have seen that share decline by almost 30 percent. From Mother Jones:
This sort of analysis is missing from the vast majority of mainstream newspapers.
Over the past three months, major print outlets throughout the country largely failed to discuss rising structural inequality and poverty in the United States while reporting on policies and programs that affect low-income groups.
Fox News compared the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prediction of job losses due to sequestration to recent job growth reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), falsely suggesting that the across-the-board cuts have had no negative effects on job creation.
On the August 23 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto was joined by Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee to address the impacts of across-the-board budget cuts commonly known as sequestration. In response to recent comments made by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the damaging effects of sequestration on the economy, Cavuto claimed, "I think he just made that up."
Cavuto then attempted to bolster his claim with a misleading graphic, which suggested that continued job growth since the onset of sequestration proves that the budget cuts had no real economic effect.
In fact, the best CBO estimates of the effects of sequestration through the 2013 calendar year predicted slower economic growth and fewer jobs created. Cavuto's graphic correctly listed the number of new jobs created during the first six months of sequestration but incorrectly compared that with the CBO's estimate that 750,000 fewer full-time jobs would be created under sequestration. The two jobs figures are entirely unrelated. According to the CBO report cited by Cavuto (emphasis added):
In the absence of sequestration, CBO estimates, GDP growth would be about 0.6 percentage points faster during this calendar year, and the equivalent of about 750,000 more full-time jobs would be created or retained by the fourth quarter.
Contrary to what Cavuto claimed, the CBO did not predict that the economy would experience a net loss in jobs, rather that sequestration would result in fewer jobs being created. An accurate presentation of the data would make it clear that while jobs growth has been present, absent budget cuts it would be much greater.
While the discussion between Cavuto and Huckabee attempted to downplay the effects of sequestration, cuts are being continuously rolled out, affecting a number of crucial government programs. Unless policy is changed through new legislation, such across-the-board budget cuts will be scheduled every year for the next decade, further weakening ecnomic growth.
Right-wing media are promoting a flawed study that claims it is more lucrative for low-income Americans to accept government benefits than take low-paying jobs, a notion that reveals the conservative sphere's ignorance on how anti-poverty programs work.
On August 19, the libertarian Cato Institute released a report titled "The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013." The new study updates a much-maligned version by the same name released in 1995. Both reports claim to analyze welfare benefit levels nationwide and state-by-state and push the misleading notion that "[t]he current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work."
Breitbart.com was among the first right-wing outlets to promote the study, arguing that in New York state, a "mother of two is eligible for $38,004 in welfare benefits -- a sum more than the annual salary of a New York entry-level school teacher." The Washington Examiner joined in as well, with an uncritical review detailing the study's claims that a proverbial mother of two would be better off on government assistance than she would be working for as much as $15 per hour in some states.
On Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto brought on the lead author of the study, Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner, to discuss his findings in more depth. What followed was three minutes of self-promotion that forwarded the tired and debunked right-wing narrative against government assistance and the minimum wage. From Your World:
TANNER: There is no evidence to suggest that poor people are lazy, and every survey suggests that people on welfare say they would like to work, that they are not happy being on welfare. But just because they're not lazy doesn't mean they're stupid; if you pay people more not to work than to work, well, a lot of them are going to choose not to work.
Unfortunately, neither Cato's Tanner nor his counterparts in the right-wing media seem to have any clue how anti-poverty programs function.
The argument that government assistance and benefits are too generous and thus drive recipients out of work has been thoroughly debunked by experts, and Tanner's calculations have been the subject of scrutiny in the past. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlighted nearly two decades ago, Tanner is still basing his calculations on the assumption that recipients take full advantage of every single benefit program that is potentially available to them. From CBPP:
Cato's conclusions are striking. They also are inaccurate -- the Cato report is replete with analytic errors. For the nation in general and for California in particular, the report paints a misleading picture both of the amount of benefits most [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] families receive and of the supposed advantages from relying on welfare rather than working.
Both the 1995 and 2013 reports also fail to account for differing costs of living or the per capita income of the states surveyed.
Tanner is willing to accept that survey data suggests "that people on welfare say that they would like to work," but then attributes their continued reliance on benefits to the generosity of the system. This logic completely disregards the economic realities faced by low-wage job-seekers amidst a catastrophic recession and years of limited recovery.
Tanner is proud to report that welfare recipients can make more than the minimum wage in more than thirty states, but he ignores how the value of their benefits have eroded over time. According to the CBPP, "cash assistance benefits for the nation's poorest families with children fell again in purchasing power in 2012 and are now at least 20 percent below their 1996 levels in 37 states, after adjusting for inflation."
If, in fact, welfare recipients would rather work than receive benefits, the logical first step toward reducing reliance on government assistance should be to stimulate robust public and private sector job growth. Instead, Tanner and his right-wing allies argue that the only way to reduce reliance on government assistance is to cut programs and force people onto an ailing job market to survive.
Both Tanner and Cavuto agree that raising wages would be a bad anti-poverty policy and would increase unemployment. This conclusion, of course, flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary and simply furthers the conservative attacks against living wages.
The Wall Street Journal touted Ohio Gov. John Kasich's so-called success when it comes to creating jobs, dismissing data that shows the state is lagging in private sector job creation and that added jobs are often low-wage positions.
From the August 14 article profiling Kasich, who "boasts about his state's financial outlook":
Job growth is up. The Republican governor just signed what he calls "the biggest tax cut in the country" after converting a looming $7.7 billion budget deficit into a $2.5 billion surplus. Such success, he says, "would probably get a global CEO a giant bonus."
In fact, Ohio ranks ranks 47th in private sector job creation according to a Pew Research survey, and over the past year, the state has shown almost no job growth at all. Further, most of those created jobs have been in low-paying positions, with wages less than $15 an hour. Kasich, who made millions working for the doomed Wall Street titan Lehman Brothers, is no stranger to giant corporate bonuses, but in this case self-congratulation is premature.
It is unclear whether Kasich's policies have had a demonstrable effect on positive employment trends that developed long before he took office in January 2011. The auto bailout orchestrated by the Obama administration in 2009 is largely credited with delivering the state to the president in the 2012 election. Kasich opposed the auto bailout at the time, stating on the December 19, 2008, edition of The O'Reilly Factor that "Americans will say we don't mind helping them if they're going to be viable. If they're not going to be viable, we shouldn't throw good money after bad."
Even if credit is given to Kasich for his stewardship over the past two years, the Journal completely misses the mark in reporting his budget policies.
Kasich has seen a budget deficit return to surplus, but only through draconian cuts to state and local government operations -- including severe decreases in funding for education and women's health. Rather than gearing the state's budget surplus toward stimulative policies that would help put Ohioans back to work, Kasich's plan will favor tax cuts for the wealthy while shifting more of the burden onto Ohio families and consumers.
The Journal also quickly glosses over what it calls "new abortion restrictions that drew sharp criticism from Democrats," which are actually among the harshest in the country. In its rush to promote a Kasich "prescription" for the Republican Party going forward, and promote the governor's own ambitions for higher office in 2016, The Wall Street Journal failed miserably to tell the true story.
President Obama has given three high-profile speeches in July and August outlining an economic policy agenda for his remaining term in office as part of the White House's attempts to refocus the national media on pressing economic issues. An analysis of live coverage found that these speeches received unbalanced coverage across cable news outlets, with Fox News devoting by far the least amount of time.