Dear Ira Glass and This American Life staff,
I look forward to This American Life every week, but a recent episode really upset me. I heard statements go unchallenged that I knew just weren’t true. I felt the program irresponsibly misled listeners about profoundly important issues. “Don’t they have to fact-check this stuff?” I griped to friends. I’m not writing about the Mike Daisey episode that has gotten so much recent attention, but about the March 2 episode called “What Kind of Country.”
The show, you’ll remember, was about whether we Americans want a country with worse-funded government services and lower taxes, or better-funded government services and higher taxes, an unusually political topic for This American Life. I work as a union organizer, and to me this show played as an attack on working people from start to finish.
Act One focused on cuts to police and other services in Trenton, New Jersey. The show uncritically accepted Governor Chris Christie’s explanation that the underlying problem is that “three out of every four dollars” in the public budget go to payroll, including “cushy contracts” and “Cadillac health benefits” for public employees. This basic framing of the problem was repeated by various voices throughout the hour. No one ever really clarified why it was bad to spend a majority of the city budget on labor, or which costs they felt should be proportionally higher. City services, after all, are generally fairly labor-intensive. Nor did you ask any economists about the economic impacts of spending on payroll, which are pretty good. When you pay wages to local people, they tend to spend it again soon and locally. By contrast, if you spend more of your city budget on, say, purchasing capital equipment manufactured elsewhere, or enriching private companies whose profits flow elsewhere, that money is lost to the local economy for good. This was not mentioned.
Act Two was an interview with anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who claimed that public costs could be sharply reduced, as in Utah, by switching from defined-benefit pension to defined-contribution retirement plans like 401(k)s. You didn’t fact-check that, but seemed to assume it was true, calling it a “very sensible-sounding reform.” In fact, though, it isn’t true. As Connecticut State University professor James Russell explained in a recent interview (“Retirement Savings Ideology,” Against the Grain, November 23, 2011), defined-benefit plans do not necessarily cost more than defined-contribution plans. Briefly, this is because defined-benefit plans take advantage of the pooling of risk that is the basic idea of insurance. A defined-benefit plan (such as the popular Social Security) guarantees you a particular sum only until you die. Some people end up dying soon after retiring, and the savings on their benefits help cover the cost of benefits for people who live out long retirements, just as the healthy subsidize the ill within a health insurance plan. This is as efficient and fair as can be, especially since none of us knows what fate has in store for us personally. With a defined-contribution system, on the other hand, even if you die soon after retirement, the amount that has been allocated to you goes to your survivors instead of helping pay for others who will outlive their benefits and face impoverishment. It is an inefficient system designed to produce winners, losers, and scarcity. You seemed to take for granted that the facts lined up with Norquist’s ideological stance.
When Norquist claimed that, because organized labor is so strong in the public sector in New Jersey, you can’t “lay off the ten percent incompetent guys on the police force. No, you lay off the most recently hired guys, who may be the most competent,” host Ira Glass said, “In fact, this is exactly what happened in Trenton.” It sure sounded like Glass was saying Norquist was right that they laid off the most competent cops. After I re-listened to the passage a couple times, I understood you were simply saying that the least-senior cops were laid off first, but you followed it up with “it was pretty ham-fisted,” further supporting the impression that the best cops were let go. You didn’t ask any cops. You didn’t follow up on why seniority is commonly factored into layoffs in union contracts. (Without seniority protections, of course, employers have a financial incentive to lay off the most senior people because they make the most money. It is not going to be the “incompetent” employees who are laid off in any case, and indeed if bosses find some of their employees “incompetent” they can always fire them without waiting for layoffs to come around.) You gave Norquist quite a platform for his anti-union propaganda, but you didn’t ask even one union member’s opinion the whole hour. I kept waiting for the other side of the story, but it never came.
Act Three was the worst. This act told how the CEO of a luxury hotel in Colorado Springs persuaded the city to enact sharp cuts to its public programs. Reporter Robert Smith fawned so much over the Broadmoor Hotel as a “Shangri-La” whose CEO should be trusted about the correct way to run a city because “who wouldn’t want to live in a world like the Broadmoor?” that I googled it to see if I was missing something. Nope. It’s just a very fancy resort hotel with a large grounds and a famous golf course.
This apparently gave CEO Steve Bartolin the authority to opine, for instance, that it was unreasonable for the city to employ a computer staff of 81 people when the hotel’s computer staff numbered only six. Do the hotel and the city perform even vaguely similar functions with their computer systems? He, too, compared the city’s 70% labor cost unfavorably with the hotel’s 35% labor cost, although again there is no reason to think that the city’s budget and the hotel’s budget should be comparable, except that each is, in Bartolin’s words, a “service-delivery organization.” Would you expect the city to spend as much on such non-labor costs as food, laundry, and golf balls as the Broadmoor must? Does the hotel’s staff include building inspectors, social workers, or public records clerks as the city’s probably does? When Bartolin claimed, “You can’t run an organization with a 70% payroll. Any business person can look at that and say, Jesus, we’re going to be out of business in 2014 at this pace,” why did no one note that a business is trying to turn a profit each year, while a city is not? And even setting aside the ridiculous comparison between city and hotel, when Bartolin recommended that the city lower starting wages, cut spending on employee health care, pensions, and sick days, and contract out more work to private companies, why didn’t it occur to you to go interview some housekeepers or caddies at the Broadmoor to find out how Bartolin’s stingy spending priorities were working out for them?
Later in Act Three we met former city employee Roland Hawkins, who got ten raises in five years when he worked in the city’s parks department. Smith exclaimed that this “sounds extreme,” but two raises a year don’t sound extreme to me. Many union workers receive two raises a year: one an annual cost of living adjustment to cover inflation, and the other an annual step raise on a wage scale, to reward experience and longevity. Hawkins apparently wasn’t a union member, but it still seems like a reasonable policy for a responsible employer who wants to retain a stable work force. Smith was incredulous that Hawkins was earning an annual $42,000 after five years. Is that such a princely sum? Shouldn’t city parks workers be able to buy their homes, take vacations, and save for their kids’ college funds? Why are wages and benefits always scrutinized while profit is held sacrosanct? I noticed you didn’t interrogate CEO Bartolin on how much he takes home each year, and why he doesn’t cut back his profits so he can provide more sick time and better benefits to his employees, the way the city used to do. Why an intrinsically inefficient concept like profit-making is considered the benchmark of efficiency I may never understand.
After Hawkins’ job was contracted out to a private firm, and he ended up rehired doing the same job, you pointed out, the city spent about $12,000 less, or 21% less, on his wages and benefits. You acknowledged that the city couldn’t say whether it saved any money at all on this deal, since the savings were offset by increased costs of new equipment and profit for the private firms. But you didn’t quite finish connecting the dots for listeners: what this means, essentially, is a direct transfer of public dollars from the paychecks of working-class people like the affable Hawkins into the profits of CEOs like this private parks contractor. The taxpayers saved nothing, but wealth was redistributed from the poor to the rich, from the 99% to the 1%, in the middle of a recession. That’s the story, but it’s not the story you told.
Look, I know there’s been a lot of agonizing (so to speak) over Daisey’s show, and I understand how his theatricalizations didn’t meet journalistic standards, but in all the important ways the story he told was true. Whether or not Daisey met the n-hexane workers, those workers exist as he described them. Even if he hedged on the number of workers he met who were organizing unions, it was most important that he included the union workers in the show. Too often, the initiative of workers themselves is erased from stories about foreign sweatshops, and solutions are reduced to paternalistic outside monitoring and the exporting of U.S. legal standards, our own union history ignored. Had Daisey left the unionists out of his show, he would have painted an inaccurately passive picture of how Chinese workers are dealing with manufacturing industry standards. The show would have been, in an important way, less true. It’s great to have a public conversation about truth and responsible journalism, but the uproar over Daisey’s piece and the silence over “What Kind of Country” reflects, I think, a failure to see the forest for the trees. Small errors of fact can be dangerous, but misleading narratives and covert ideological frames are far more widespread and stand to do much greater damage. This program, in important ways, was untrue, and I think it stands to do much more harm than the other program possibly could.