Another Economics Journalism is Possible

I’ve always been annoyed by the trite, horse-race-style coverage of financial markets that dominates so much of what passes for economics journalism in Canada (especially in the electronic media).

How many 2-minute “market updates” do we really need, anyway?  I typically hear 4 or more on the radio any given workday, just getting to and from work (full reports at 26 and 56 past each hour, supplemented by “market minutes” at 13 and 43, not to mention shorter updates squashed into regular newscasts).

Do we actually learn anything from those monotonous reports?  Isn’t there a better use for the broadcast bandwidth and the electricity that goes into producing and distributing that white noise (let alone the brain space that it occupies)?

DAY 1: Host (Bill): Well Joe Blow Broker, why were the markets up 20 basis points today?  Guest (Joe Blow): Well Bill, the markets were up because investor confidence has strengthened.

DAY 2: Host (Bill): Well Joe Blow Broker, why were the markets down 20 basis points today?  Guest (Joe Blow): Well Bill, the markets were down because investor confidence has weakened.

Of course, there is an ideological function for this mindless concentration on the ups and downs of finance: it teaches us that the markets are important, that that’s where the real economic events occur, that they are the ultimate arbiters of eocnomic health and well-being.

I think we’d be much better served with a “work update” at 26 and 56 past every hour.  Instead of Joe Blow Broker coming on to tell us why the markets have risen or fallen 2o basis points , let’s hear from someone who actually performed real productive labour that day, and in so doing added something to the nation’s GDP.  What did they do?  How was it useful?  How are they learning to do it better?  That would be infinitely more informative and useful than what we currently hear.

Well, last week I had an interesting opportunity to experiment first-hand with a different approach to reporting on the economy.  I was invited to replace Michael Hlinka, the perky but libertarian business columnist for CBC Radio’s flagship Toronto morning show (“Metro Morning,” hosted by the affable Andy Barrie), for a week.  Michael and I go back a ways.  I like his energy and informality; but there’s no doubt his hard-right views have been getting increasingly strident, however, and I feel this show (like most of the rest of the media, of course) needs some balance to this daily dose of free-market spin.

As if reading my mind, CBC invited me to fill in while Michael is away on vacation.  This was my chance to try out an alternative style of economic journalism (though constrained, of course, by the format and tradition of the show).  I didn’t get to provide twice-hourly “work updates” as I’ve dreamed of , but I did get to put a different twist on it all (in collaboration with the producers of Metro Morning, who were highly collegial and open-minded about it all).

Each day’s “work” was a five-minute conversation (running at 6:45 am) with the host, preceded by a short scripted intro.  Three questions were prepared for each session, though Andy usually started free-styling it (with his convincing conversational style) pretty quickly.  (The hardest part, of course, was dragging my butt out of bed at 5:30 5 days in a row; I am actually pretty good in the mornings, but that’s ridiculous.)

Day 1 (Monday) and Day 5 (Friday) were the closest I came to “market updates.”  Monday was a conversation about June’s auto sales (and Ford’s leap to the top of the Canadian auto sales sweepstakes for that month).  Friday dealt with the imminent release of the June jobs numbers (which came out at 7, just after our talk) and what they presaged about the state of the rumoured “green shoots” indicating imminent recovery.  (As it turns out, of course, those shoots were weeds, and they seem to have been plucked from the ground!)  Those two days we covered typical ground to the usual business reports — but from a slightly different perspective, needless to say.

During the middle days (Tuesday to Thursday) we went further afield.  Tuesday’s topic was the speculative nature of oil futures markets, whereby the price of oil depends more on financial sentiment than real supply and demand.  We considered the consequences of having our national exchange rate dominated by trends in this single speculative market (all the more irrational since Canada’s oil and gas industry accounts for all of 3% of our national GDP — what about the other 97%?).

On Wednesday we discussed what happens when factories shut, leaving suddenly-laid-off workers owed thousands of dollars each in severance, back pay, and vacation pay.  The “hook” for this story was the one-year anniversary of the bankruptcy of plastics-maker PMP in Toronto (where 2400 non-union workers had $30 million stolen from them right when they needed it most — and then, amazingly, fought back with picket lines and blockades).

Thursday, at Andy’s suggestion, we revisited the now-quaint idea from Henry Ford that workers should be paid enough to buy the stuff they make (harkening back to his $5/day wage in 1914, which doubled take-home pay for his workers).  I pointed out that Ford’s new hires in the U.S. today make $14 per hour (a rate that is frozen until at least 2015): not a living wage, and certainly not enough to buy a new Ford.  Andy was more interested in Henry Ford’s paternalism: he demanded clean-living, faithful, teetotalling behaviour from his workers in return for that premium wage.  I pointed out that if the same standards were applied to CEOs today, most would be thrown out of their corner offices in short order  :)   Why has the idea of a living wage lost favour with modern employers?  Because they face less compulsion (from unions, regulations, or public pressure) to pay anything more than the bare minimum required to recruit the workers they need.

So on these three days we covered topics that would never see the light of day in the usual “market update.”  My week is now over (Tom Caldwell, legendary founder of Caldwell Securities and Canadian nationalist, does the honours next week).  A few morning radio shots from the left bow won’t change any listener’s view of the world, I’m sure.  And apparently Metro Morning received an e-mail or two complaining, “Isn’t it typical for the CBC to hire a left-winger for this job!”  (Strange, what do they say about the guy who does it the other 51 weeks of the year???!!!)  But it was an interesting experiment for me to think about other ways to communicate about economics — and to imagine how popular consciousness might be different if we weren’t bombarded with so much business-oriented propoganda, dressed up as economic “news”.

The best part of all: Matt Galloway, guess hosting for Andy on Friday morning, told listeners I was the only economist he’d ever met wearing a punk rock t-shirt.  (Since it’s radio, you can wear whatever you want: I got slobbier as that week of 5:30 alarm bells wore on, and by Friday straggled into the studio in cutoffs and my collector’s item Dead Kennedys t-shirt.)  I’ll take that as a true badge of honour — no matter how many nasty e-mails Metro Morning received!

7 comments

  • That is hilarious Jimbo. I have decided now that everything is indeed the history of class struggle and we are losing badly. In fact as you experienced we don’t even have a goalie to pull. However we have great team spirit.

    I think my favourite dead kennedy’s song was Well Paid Scientists (Bruno Latour style), or maybe Nazi Punks F*%&-Off.

  • A business instructor friend of mine laments the loss of the daily agricultural report that was part of the noon day show. Hog prices are far more pertinent to a farmer who must sell the hogs. You need not sell stock. Absurd is the concern over the churning stock prices.

    Talk about family values! The concern about the morals of the hourly waged just confirms for me the need for a new political economy that subsumes mathematical theory: economics involves values and value judgments, and it involves real unequal power. In the past number years the unconscionable immorality of business- World Com, contracts in Iraq, and outright incompetent management in the auto industry explode any notion that executives are superior morally or meritorious because they are graduates of McGill’s or Harvard’s school of business. Over paid lay abouts!

  • Jim said:

    “perky but libertarian”

    Aren’t they all, though . . . ? !{)>

    Your point about the up-to-the-minute stock reports reminds me of something I read/heard back when they first started appearing en masse on “mainstream” news: that the TV and radio stations in the fSU had the same kind of thing going on with numbers of tractors and such.

    The ironies of “The Freedom” continue to amaze me.

  • Leanne MacMillan

    glad to hear your dress style has finally been noticed and recognized!

  • Seems like the recession is now over, cause Mr. Carny finally saw the light.

    Here is a neat little bit that I thought was kind of echoing what Jim was getting at here. Kind of puts perspective from a historical point of view.

    Hey I am not a naysayer and I would love to feel that things are turning. MAybe we might actually see some investment dollars come out of hiding, I hope so, and I hope it is not just government stimulus that the media and Mr. Carney is getting so excited about.

    Have we seen any movement in productive investment, other than that coming from the public sector.

    http://thenumberstheydontpublish.blogspot.com/

    Hope all you bloggers are having a nice vacation, seems slow around here these days.

    Yawn… time to get back to my hammock. later

  • Marc-Andre Gagnon

    I am wearing my t-shirt received from “The Economist”: Think Responsibly.
    However, I am still a fan of the Dead Kennedys, and my favorite song is “Soup is Good Food”:

    Soup is good food-(We don’t need you any more)
    You made a good meal-(We don’t need you any more)
    Now how do you feel-(We don’t need you any more)
    To be shit out our ass
    And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash
    We’re sorry
    You’ll just have to leave
    Unemployment runs out after just six weeks
    How does it feel to be a budget cut?
    You’re snipped
    You no longer exist

    Keep on the good work Jimbo, it is always interesting to read your column, whatever you are wearing.
    Best.

  • Good to hear something different on the CBC.

    And agreed with the comment above, a classic example of what passes for economic reporting was Kevin Carmichael ‘s article onlast week’s BoC report, which headlined recession is over, but the body of the article more or less explained how it wasn’t.

    Almost unconscious was the assertion that, because the TSX rose on the news, it “plays a big role in reversing Canada’s fortunes”. The article supported opposite conclusion. The BoC actually *reduced* its 2010 growth estimate. Presumably stocks had already priced in the previously higher predicted growth. If stock markets rise rapidly on the news that Carney and the BoC are now predicting lower future growth, the TSX is exhibiting bubble behaviour, again, one of the core problems not solution. Asset price bubbles are not economic growth. Anyway, I don’t know Carmichael and he may be a good reporter, but he seems to just pass over these things without realizing what he is saying. Or maybe he does, in which case, he’s incompetent.

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