Gordon Campbell on the myopia of the business news

Listening to the business news is a bit like eavesdropping on the radio transmissions from space aliens. There is no discernible connection between the concerns of the captains of these space ships – the bank economists and the finance house spokesmen – and the concerns of ordinary listeners back on Planet Earth. Routinely,” business news” reports sound like advertisements for products that most of us have never bought, and will never buy.

Much business “news” has to do with micro-fluctuations in the sharemarket – which, at best, is invested in by only one in ten New Zealanders. A lower exchange rate is always deemed to be good news, even though it raises the cost of imports for the majority of New Zealanders and means that if we go on an overseas holiday we’ll be worse off. For some reason, this is always seen as “good” news. Yes, a lower exchange rate will benefit the very few New Zealanders who run export businesses and some of those profits will presumably flow through to the rest of us. But isn’t that what the business news should be analyzing – namely, are fair slices of the profits from a lower exchange rate translating into higher wages and job security for the work force– and if not, why not?

More often than not, business news is about the level of economic “growth” – which again, is always good, or good relative to some other economies that can always be found where it is worse. The overall economic growth figure is assumed (a) to be an accurate measure of our well-being and (b) something that lifts all our boats. At best, we may get some indication that some regions are doing better than others, and some sectors ( eg retailing) may be doing better or worse, than others. But again, its rare to hear an analysis of how these outcomes are impacting on actual families and communities unless and until there is a social breakdown – which will then tend to be treated in terms of emotion and human drama, and in virtual isolation from the economic forces that generated it, and other tragedies like it.

That’s not surprising. The echo chamber effect of well paid, middle class business practitioners talking to each other is deafening to any sense of social context. Does anyone know – or care – what difference an economy growing at 2 percent as opposed to an economy growing at 1.25 per cent will mean to them personally, and to the living standard of their families? Not me. So why do we devote so much air time to people talking about these micro-fluctuations of growth and inflation? Here’s a good example of the tunnel vision that I’m talking about.

Finally, there is always a lot of focus in the business news on what the Reserve Bank may do, or has done, or should do, with respect to interest rates or exchange rates, or inflation rates. Will the RB raise the cash rate by .25 per cent or by .50 percent or not at all – tomorrow, in a few weeks, or mid year? Be still my beating heart. Hmmm. When was the last time you heard these fluctuations couched in terms of the impact on jobs and wages or income inequality or poverty rates in this country? On state radio, we have effectively divorced the news about the economy from almost every single thing that directly links these factors to the vast bulk of the audience.

Music criticism, and Elvis

I’ve written about this before, but Presley’s birthday last week reminded me of it again. When anyone disses music criticism I think of this essay by Daniel Wolff, which completely changed my perception of the Elvis Presley’s hit song “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. And that’s the whole point of music analysis, to make us into better listeners. Wolff makes a compelling case that the song should be heard as Presley consciously addressing his mass audience – not his sweetheart – at a post-Army point in time when he was still grappling with what sort of career, if any, he should now pursue :

Honey, you lied when you said you loved me
And I had no cause to doubt
But I’d rather go on hearing your lies
Than to go on living without you.

Seen in this light, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” becomes a song about the perils and rewards of celebrity. Wolff was also attacking the simple-minded, bifurcated worldview of Presley promoted by Peter Guralnick in his celebrated two part biography. Unfortunately, Guralnick’s version of the Presley story has now become the standard text. It patronizingly treats Presley as being purely (a) a “natural” talent, a hillbilly genius from whom a blues and country hybrid poured out like a mountain stream under the guidance of Sam Philips until (b) Presley’s natural gifts were polluted by the evil Colonel Tom Parker and the hacks of Hollywood.

As Wolff argues, both sides of Guralnick’s version of the story rob Presley of any agency or musical intelligence. This is despite evidence to the contrary contained in Presley’s deep knowledge (even as an adolescent) of the gospel/blues/country repertoire. Not to mention the dozens of takes he did of “Hound Dog” (there’s a great Albert Wertheimer photo of Elvis crouched by the speakers, listening to the playbacks) and… crucially, in his entirely self-aware choice of an old 1920s song like “Are You Lonesome Tonight” as a single, and his nuanced performance of it.

Meaning: if Elvis eventually sold his soul, he did so fully aware of the bargain he was striking. It made sense – and a lot of money – given the precedents at the time. After all, the rise and fall and comeback of Frank Sinatra had just demonstrated that the movies were the only wise route to career longevity, once the fad stage of being a teen idol had run its brief course.

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7 Comments on Gordon Campbell on the myopia of the business news

  1. Your link is an excellent example of what you describe – almost comical.

    Yes I’ve often wondered why that is the case and why the actual analysis of someone like Rod Oram is so much more informative.

    This is my, not entirely frivolous, hypothesis.

    ‘The market’ is an object of faith to those of a neo-liberal mindset. These commentaries on economics, economic growth and exchange rates are therefore an incantation in reverence to the faith object. The lack of connection to lived experience is, I think quite deliberate; a bit like what the effect of preaching in Latin to people who don’t have the language or arguing about whether angels are material was in the Middle Ages. We the audience are encouraged to give our unknowing, lamb-like reverence to the esoteric discussions. Ideally we go no further than to wonder “why the market moves in such mysterious ways” or perhaps “if the market really loved us / is really good for us why do we sometimes get negative growth and mass unemployment”

    As you say the conversations where market economists do this blind us to every aspect of what really matters: issues of power; of injustice; of alternatives and what might be done to change things.

  2. Right again Gordon. Business news is just a thinly veiled advertising channel for financial services companies. Just listen to “the markets” on RNZ, read out on behalf of FSC de-jour, and it’s a simple recitation of share prices for select companies! Ludicrous! Who cares what those prices are, and if you did, you’d just use an online share trading service anyway. Pathetic waste of airtime.

  3. The recent announcement of 3% improvement in GDP over the next 15 years is a case in point.
    This corresponds to 0.2% per year or less if the figure assumes compounding improvements to GDP. This number is clearly equal to zero if any measurement
    of variability is included.
    So what are we to make of a 15 year prediction when the RBNZ normally can’t predict accurately GDP over 12 months. If economists have any mathematical training at all they should be abl to place their prediction in context using standards error estimates.
    Thus, is this 3% figure 3% +/- 1% or is it 3% +/- 25%? It would b nice to see all economic analysis accompanied by error estimates like pollsters do and give the public some confidence in the data they are being fed.

  4. ‘Here is a dangerous man, dangerous because of his ability, even towards the sad end of his life, to inflame emotions and create beauty’

    So true. Thank you for the link to the Wolff article. I read Guralnick’s 2-volume biography of Elvis over the summer (and simultaneous full-body immersion in his entire back catalogue as soundtrack for the books); and was struck by the ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine conventional narrative within its pages. I think the Boomers will have to die off before Elvis’ music is re-evaluated and appreciated, for its courageous diversity, depth and beauty – missteps and all.

  5. Indeed Gordon. This is a copy of an e-mail sent to Nine to Noon Jan 2014

    Dear Kathryn and team

    Every month the New Zealand public endures yet another round of pointless discussion ad nauseam on what the Reserve Bank governor is going to do to interest rates. There’s no more sense in this than when the sages of old were said to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The notion that somehow separating the Reserve Bank from the executive and supposing that control of the cash rate was all that this country needed to secure its financial stability was always the most preposterous part of monetary and neo-liberal economic theory. After thirty years of this nonsense, just when will the penny drop with the media that there’s something seriously amiss with this delusional system and isn’t it long past time that the media started to show a bit more professional scepticism and intelligence, instead of the sad deference to authority that you seem to have adopted instead?


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