Joe Kernen, Ebenezer Scrooge, and how not to be a gadfly

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A gadfly is, by definition, a person who shakes up the status quo. He/she questions the status quo. He/she challenges complacency and accepted wisdom.

It’s an important role. Socrates was a gadfly, and died for it. Galileo was a gadfly, and paid heavily for it.

However (to paraphrase Monty Python): being a gadfly isn’t just contradiction. It’s something more substantial than that.

There are people in the media who pose as gadflies. They do it by saying ridiculous things, and then they defy their audience to contradict them.

For example: Joe Kernen on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on weekday mornings.

Recently, Kernen interviewed someone on the topic of climate change. During thee interview, he told his guest that he (Kernen) was an MIT graduate, and that he (Kernen) knew that there was no such thing as “climate science.”

This isn’t being a gadfly. This is just being stupid.

Recently, Kernen was talking about foreign aid. “Someone told me,” he said (I paraphrase), “that going without government aid was a great incentive. Why don’t we apply the same idea to foreign countries? Don’t give them aid. It’ll encourage them to do better.”

Or, of course, they might perish.

From Dickens:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, `a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

 

 

This was Scrooge’s idea of how to be a gadfly.

I hope you remember the rest of the story.

Merry Christmas, Joe Kernen.


Economics for dummies

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Economics has never been my strong point. I still don’t understand a lot of the jargon and concepts.

But, if you watch CNBC, you’ll quickly see that an understanding of economics isn’t really necessary. As with political programming, it’s really all about the screaming.

With sound effects, yet, if you’re Jim Cramer. (Actually, Cramer seems to have sobered up a bit; he still does the “booyah” routine, but the carnival sound-effects board with mooing and yelling and oinking seems to have gone by the wayside. Can it be? Can our boy Jim have grown up, a little?

Nah. I think he just had a talking-to by some folks at the network.)

CNBC features stentorian ranters like Larry Kudlow, for whom capitalism is sacrosanct, and who can’t say President Obama’s name without a sneer. They have Joe Kernan of “Squawk Box,” sort of a minor-league Chris Matthews, who likes to hoot and mock and talk over other people. Most chillingly of all, they have Rick Santelli, who reports from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, and who snorts and spins and shrieks and waves his hands in the air. In case you’re not familiar with his work, Santelli credits himself (and is credited by others) with helping to found the Tea Party, with a famous / infamous on-air rant. Rick continues to fly into rages and make speeches on the air, hoping for another through-the-roof YouTube success; he did one the other day, in which he compared himself to the Founding Fathers standing up to King George. (Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.)

(To be fair, the whole hyperactively angry thing probably made Rick Santelli very successful in business; trading is notoriously competitive, and I’m sure it’s an advantage to be bouncier and crazier than the other guy. On the air, however, these things don’t make you a journalist; they makes you a clown.  They certainly don’t make you a peer of the Founding Fathers.)

CNBC also has the pretty ones: Carl Quintanilla, Maria Bartiromo. These are mostly memorable for their fresh complexions. They seldom have anything deep to say. They ask questions that seem thoughtful and probing, but I wonder sometimes who writes these questions.

But – and here’s the thing – most of these “journalists,” the pretty ones and the howlers and the sneerers, make the most howlingly ridiculous statements on a daily basis.

For example: stupid generalizations and truisms. “Markets always fluctuate.” Hell, I barely passed Econ 101, and I could have told you that.

Also: I know the difference between macroeconomics and microeconomics. Macro is the economy as a whole; micro is economics as it applies to a family, or to a business. They are vastly different.

Then why do these CNBC people treat them as the same thing?

Debt, for example. For a family, and for a business, it ‘s a problem. For a sovereign nation, less so. Countries can print money. I certainly can’t. Countries can manipulate interest rates. Can you do that? I can’t.

But the Kudlows and Kernans speak as if the rules that govern the national economy are the same that govern you and me.

So: are they experts, or idiots, or wannabe demagogues?

I don’t know. It’s like watching Spongebob. It’s very unreal.

At least Spongebob is cute and well-meaning.

Because, I tell you frankly, these guys aren’t.


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