Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.
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There may not be a single news outlet on the planet that doesn’t dabble in Fiat News techniques from time to time. That is the nature of a competition game, after all – the rules are defined so that you either play or you lose.
But nobody – nobody – does Fiat News like the New York Times does Fiat News. Sure, CNN, MSNBC and Fox are a bit bolder, using every tool at their disposal to grey the line between analysis and news, to introduce affect into every term, to assign and present coverage that is at once entirely factual and entirely misleading. If we were being supremely charitable (and we won’t be – this is just a hypothetical), you might even argue that the Foxes and MSNBCs of the world are Not-Even-Fiat-News in some meta sense of the idea, simply because everyone knows that everyone knows that a decision to visit those pages is a decision to read a lot of opinions masquerading as news. They’re Not Even Pretending Anymore (TM), as someone might say, so if you’re reading them with any semblance of earnestness, you’ve basically given up.
But the sheer joy with which the Paper of Record publishes obviously affected content as news is a different thing entirely. And in their case, they really are still pretending. I am confident that this piece was published with a serious belief that it met news standards. I’m confident that view is still held. And yet.
Elizabeth Warren on a Wealth Tax [New York Times]
Look, we haven’t identified a systematic way to track down affect and intent in image selection, but to grossly paraphrase Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it. Let’s just say that the Times’s proprietary archive of GOP candidate images was somewhat less flattering. I won’t hold it against you if you disagree. This is clearly in Rusty’s-opinion-land.
“By now, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is known for being the candidate ready with a plan. But back in January, she was just getting her campaign started. And one of her very first proposals was to impose a wealth tax.”
But this isn’t. This is some sublime A-level Fiat News. The lede of the piece is an unclothed common knowledge missionary statement that communicates zero factual content and an assertion described as something that is ‘known.’ By whom? I dunno. Based on what? No idea. Maybe it’s true. It is certainly the impression that I have, but that raises some uncomfortable questions about how, exactly, ideas about what we all know we all know enter our collective subconscious. Hint: it’s pieces like this.
“When the United States government wants to raise money from individuals, it taxes what people earn — the income they receive from work or investments. But Ms. Warren wants the government to also tax the accumulated wealth — think stocks, real estate and retirement funds — held by the very richest Americans.”
This is not a Fiat News point, but an aside to say how delighted I am that anyone thinks ‘retirement funds’ represent a meaningful portion of this figure.
“It is expected to generate $2.75 trillion in revenue over a 10-year period — money that could help pay for expanded social programs.”
Passive construction probably isn’t halal with the style guide anyway. But when you omit the “who”, you aren’t just communicating vaguely. You are effectively presenting what amounts to an estimate, projection or judgment as a fact. The inclusion of the paired-up issue that follows is pure affect. Whether it’s Facebook Boomer Memes about “every dollar spent on X could have been spent on wounded veterans”, or a New York Times writer saying that we could use these taxes to expand social programs, you know you’re dealing with someone who wants you to draw a relationship between two things which does not exist.
That relationship is not intrinsic. Presenting it is an emotional appeal. Every time.
That’s what it means for someone who has a subtler grasp of the tools of Fiat News to tell you how to think.
There are plenty more to be found, but the last one may be the best.
“Well-funded opponents of the tax would be nearly certain to wage a legal battle against it.”
It’s obviously analysis rather than fact, but what is so marvelously plain about this statement is its intent to prime the pump on the issue. Before you hear any opposition, we want you to know that it is “rich people” who oppose doing all these good things.
Here’s the funny thing: putting aside big constitutional issues for a moment, I think that a wealth tax is generally better and more conducive to freedom than an income tax. It aligns better with what government ought to do, which is to act as an ongoing defender of the assets of its citizens against threats both internal and external. Paying like we would pay for insurance makes sense to me. The hilarious absurdity of any attempt to actually value what rich people own, however, means that I prefer to shift more of our tax structure to capital gains from income rather than try to pretend we know what someone’s private assets are worth year-to-year. It’s a view I think Ben shares, albeit in a more exaggerated way, perhaps.
In other words, this isn’t about us disagreeing with Warren, because in a lot of ways, we don’t. As always, this is about how we’re being told how to think. And it’s all the more seductive when it IS an idea we actually favor.