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October 29, 2009

After Eight Long Years: The Return of the "Prosperity Montage!"

This is a longstanding complaint of mine. If you've read this eight times before, bear with me: I can't help myself.

The media uses -- or... used to use -- a "Prosperity Montage" as an illustration of, and reification of, good economic news. The Montage consists of the following three images:

1) Cash registers beeping and cash register drawers popping open, filled with cash.

2) The ding-ding-ding at day's end on Wall Street, to the cheers of traders.

3) Government printing presses rolling off millions of dollars in $100 bills.

This montage was used to illustrate -- and, again, reify -- the numbers, which, left to their own, are abstract things with not much concrete, tangible effect on people's daily lives. The montage is used to sell the idea that oh yes indeed this affects your daily lives plenty.

The Prosperity Montage disappeared from the television screens for... um, almost precisely 8 years. Nine years, I suppose, because there wasn't a lot of great economic news to illustrate at the end of Clinton's term (he bequeathed Bush a recession) nor since Obama was inaugurated.

But I know, for a fact, with all certainty, that the Prosperity Montage has now been pulled out of semi-retirement now. And I know this without looking at a TV screen. I know CNN and MSNBC are running the Prosperity Montage now, every time they mention this story. And I know all the networks will run it tonight.

Pictures matter. Visuals matter. "Optics" matter. The media concedes this whenever they discuss, say, a tableaux of veterans or ordinary folks at a State of the Union, or the theatrical power of a candidate's stage at a convention.

But they are of course entirely unwilling to concede that the pictures they choose to illustrate a story are similarly theatrical. And potent.

The media will not address this point, but supposing they did, they would claim 1, it was pure coincidence that they never ran the Prosperity Montage during Bush's terms, despite (for example) quarters of 5.5% and 7.2% growth, and even if they didn't, it's no big deal anyway: They're just pictures.

No, they're not. The media sold Bush's big growth as a mere abstraction having nothing at all to do with the lives of "real people;" where are the jobs?, they asked and asked. (Until there was in fact lots of jobs; at which point, they began asking, when does this unsustainable growth end and the new recession begin? If you remember, there were always "storm clouds on the horizon" for Bush.)

And to illustrate that -- to make sure you didn't confuse these growth rates as having any tangible effect on your lives -- they would just put up the number and an up arrow in the corner of the screen. No Prosperity Montage. No demonstration of economic growth in actual, tangible, real terms that impact people's day-to-day lives.

Just a number. And where are the jobs? And oh, the numbers are deceptive; there's a recession coming, you know. (Yes, any period of growth will be followed by a recession, same as it has for all of economic history. Nice prediction, there, that the growth will end. And interesting that you will only concede growth in the same breath you state it is doomed to end.)

But for Obama -- the Prosperity Montage will be back in full force, and the question will not be Where are the Jobs? The pictures will tell the story: The economy is "roaring back to life," as the Washington Post claims on its front (web) page.

This complaint is connected to another longstanding observation of mine: the media is always trying to denigrate and minimize growth under Republican presidents, this affects consumer and investor psychology to a small degree. Markets and economics have a big psychological component to them, and the media does its level best to sell a depressive psychology under Republican administrations, and a euphoric one under Democrats.

Because this does have an effect, the media does in fact wind up shaving about a half-point of GDP growth every quarter from the economy when it's managed by a Republican. I call this the "Republican Tax" -- the missing growth the media takes away from the economy, deliberately, in order to sabotage Republicans. It's an unfair tax, of course, and we shouldn't have to pay it, but we do.

Because the media is determined to downplay prosperity under Republicans and, by so doing, actually does in fact undermine consumer and investor confidence.

Anyway, I am writing to one of the Newsbusters (Tom Blumer), to make sure I get to see the return of the Prosperity Montage.

Because it's such a nice, optimistic, thrilling montage. And I haven't seen it for nine years. Like an old friend who's on his way back for a visit.

Oh: Because of worries that Obama is simply printing money to paper-up a fake recovery, it's likely you won't see the Treasury-presses-rolling-off-$100-bills part of the Prosperity Montage. That might be a bit too suggestive, a bit too reifying, in the wrong sort of way.

Not sure what they'll use instead of that. That is part of the "Prosperity Montage Classic" formula, so they'll have to come up with a new, sweeter ingredient for the "New Prosperity Montage."

They'll get creative and find something good, I'm sure.


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posted by Ace at 01:43 PM

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