Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
The criticism is logical enough: the Fed itself predicts extremely low inflation, with almost no inflationary pressure to speak of, combined with extremely high unemployment for several years to come. We're talking about a decade to get back to 5% unemployment, as I understand it. The Federal Reserve argues, however, that it's largely tapped out. It has lowered interest rates as far as it can and it doesn't have many tools left. Several commentators (from both sides of the aisle, but mostly from the left) are astounded:
Thursday, December 10, 2009
"Hi - I was wondering if you had a press release or link on your website explaining that the raw data that CEI is so concerned about is actually being housed at NOAA. I'm trying to respond to questions from readers on my blog about this, and I've heard you quoted in articles suggesting that the raw data is still available - but it would be much better to see a statement to that effect on your website. Thanks"
Thank you for your message and many apologies for not getting back to you more quickly. The University of East Anglia will make all the data accessible as soon as they are released from a range of non-publication agreements. Publication will be carried out in collaboration with the Met Office Hadley Centre. Please see our statement at http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2009/nov/CRUupdate for more information. As you may be aware, the University of East Anglia (UEA) has announced that Sir Muir Russell KCB FRSE will head an independent review into allegations that arose from a series of hacked e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU). Colleagues in CRU have confirmed their commitment to the quality and veracity of the science that relates to global warming. Their academic standing is a matter of public record and their work has been extensively peer-reviewed. The hacking is subject to a police investigation with which the University and its staff are fully cooperating. You will find all current information at www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/CRUstatements These pages will be updated with news as it is available.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
I've spoken at times on the value of low, constant inflation in a modern economy. I've been meaning to talk about this in more detail, with reference to "inflationist" movements in early America, and in the late nineteenth century. A lot of these sorts of ideas are grounded in the work of Keynes, and consistent with more recent monetarist theories. But it's important to distinguish the argument for a low, constant level of inflation (as opposed to violent inflationary and deflationary episodes) from the argument for high spikes in inflation as a confiscatory tool. Keynes spoke to inflation as a weapon of the state in the months after World War I:
"By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become 'profiteers,' who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose."
- John Maynard Keynes, 1919
I think Megan McArdle is largely on target in her explanation of what's going on, and she is firm but fair with the dissenters. Basically, if you look at the same type of plan before and after reform the premiums are reduced - that's what Krugman and Gruber are emphasizing. That means something for sure, but there's a reason why the CBO didn't highlight that. If people were free to choose what health insurance they wanted, it would be meaningful to have the same plan have lower premiums as a result of reform.
The problem is, they aren't free to choose (to borrow a Milton Friedman line). A slew of mandates are included in reform, not the least of which being the mandate to simply have insurance. So risk pools are wider, which does provide the opportunity to furnish the same insurance for less money. But if you're not allowed to buy the same insurance, what does that matter? If everyone had the same options available to them that they did before the reform, I would say look at how the premium of different types of plans change before and after reform. But they don't have the same options - they are forced to buy more. So looking at the change in the same plan is meaningless - instead you have to look at the change in the premiums people will actually end up paying.
And that is supposed to increase. And we shouldn't be surprised - as I've said for a while now, the mandate dumps tens of millions of people into the insurance market. You can't have a demand shock like that and reasonably expect a drop in prices. It just doesn't pass the smell test. Does this mean it's a bad bill? Well it's at the top of the list of arguments you would make for why it's a bad bill. I think your ultimate position on the bill itself is going to have to be based on more than that. The bill does a lot of other things that I think are good. The mandate, in my mind, is a very bad idea. But if premiums continue to climb the mandate can always be adjusted later. The question for people (who feel the way I do on the mandate) is - are all the Medicare reforms, all the advances in tax policy, all the expansions of Medicaid, the exchange, etc. still better than the status quo even if they're burdened with an odious mandate? That's a question that people have to answer for themselves. I think on balance we need to do something, and I'd prefer we didn't jump into an expansive public option. This seems like the best way to do that. The problems associated with the mandate seem smaller to me than the problems associated with doing nothing. But reasonable minds may disagree.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
What I like most about the song is that it really focuses on his life. Too many rehashes of Hamilton focus on his ideas, many of which had a great deal of merit and many of which didn't. But behind all that we forget what an extraordinary life he had, how hard he worked to achieve what he did, how hard he fought for American independence, and then for the Constitution, and how nothing in his life was just handed to him.
"Our next generation must think boldly in terms of a goal for the space program: Mars for America's future... An American colony on a new world."- Buzz Aldrin
For some time now I've been deeply interested in the human future in space. It's not something I know about in any great detail; I'm not one of those people that knows NASA history like the back of my hand, and I'm not a Trekkie. But I am deeply inspired by the history of human space exploration that I do know. Even more central to my interest, as a social scientist I'm inspired by thinking about the prospects for human progress. Markets, political liberalism, and technological innovation have rapidly lifted humans from being sedentary, impoverished, unhealthy, short-lived (albeit quite intelligent, thoughtful, and artistic) animals to new heights of civilization, sophistication, distinction, and promise. When you are on an exponential trajectory like that your thoughts quickly turn to the future and how much better it will be tomorrow. I think Mars is going to play a large role in that future, and I want to use this post as an opportunity to sketch out a few thoughts about (1.) what is this future? (2.) why Mars? (3.) why is this so important to pursue as soon as possible?
Our Interplanetary Destiny. It's hard to provide strong evidence for a forecast like this, but I think it should be clear that the human race has an interplanetary destiny. Perhaps eventually an interstellar or even an intergalactic destiny, but for now let's just stay with interplanetary. Our population has grown at an exponential rate in the last several centuries, and population growth has been accompanied by technological development. The technological development we've experienced has two primary effects on our interplanetary prospects: (1.) we've made mass destruction of human populations more likely, and (2.) we've repealed many of the constraints on normal species population dynamics by using technology to both eliminate threats to human existence and maximize the efficiency with which we use the resources we need for survival. In other words, our technological development has made it quite possible that our exponential population growth may not level off, at the same time that we've developed the means to kill millions of people, and an industrial economy that risks turning our own planet into an environment more hostile to human habitation. Stephen Hawking has cited many of these pressures and threats in his recent call to colonize space. He suggests that "our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."
Why Mars? As Robert Zubrin has remarked, "Mars is where the future is. Mars is the closest planet to the Earth that has on it all the resources necessary to support life and therefore technological civilization. It has water; it has carbon; it has nitrogens; it has a twenty four hour day; it has a complex geological history that has created mineral ore; it has sources of geothermal energy. Mars is a place we can settle." Mars also has higher gravity than the Moon, another option for a space colony that is mentioned. It provides closer access to the asteroid belt which may be an important mining resource in the future. It provides the best prospect for terraforming, which will be necessary for the development of human civilization.
Why a public initiative? John Stuart Mill, an important 19th century economist and philosopher, wrote about the necessity of the role of the state in colonial enterprises. He wrote:
"If it is desirable, as no one will deny it to be, that the planting of colonies should be conducted, not with an exclusive view to the private interests of the first founders, but with a deliberate regard to the permanent welfare of the nations afterwards to arise from these small beginnings; such regard can only be secured by placing the enterprise, from its commencement, under regulations constructed with the foresight and enlarged views of philosophical legislators; and the government alone has power either to frame such regulations, or to enforce their observance."
While private interests will certainly play a part in the colonization of Mars, the greatest benefits of a Martian colony will accrue to our descendants, generations after we are dead; generations that will build a new, permanent human civilization on the Martian surface. I have a great deal of respect for the market, but market action relies on the pursuit of self-interest, not the interest of future generations and certainly not the interest of generations in the far distant future. In this sense, the market is extremely conservative, and it will overlook and ignore the pursuit of unprecedented benefits because they are not immediate benefits. State action obviously introduces a host of new efficiency problems, but it is preferable to relying on a market that has no way internalizing the benefits of a Martian colony. There is also a moral advantage to state-led colonialism on Mars, compared to all other colonial ventures in the past. Mars, for all intents and purposes, is lifeless. We may potentially find some algae or lichen, but nothing that will introduce a great moral dilemma. Mill's insistence that "philosophical legislators" would have the "foresight and enlarged views" to prosecute a colonial venture makes us cringe now, because we know about the colonial ventures of Great Britain during Mill's lifetime. But that oversight on Mill's part isn't relevant for Mars - and the remaining portion of the argument - that the state is best suited to have "a deliberate regard to the permanent welfare of the nations afterwards to arise from these small beginnings" is still valid.
Why an American colony? The Buzz Aldrin quote that initiated this post specifically spoke of an American colony on Mars, and I strongly agree with him. But why? Why bring 20th century nationalism into the 21st and 22nd century? To be honest, I think nationalism will inevitably be downplayed in the 21st and 22nd century anyway, but I still think that it is important for America to make the first move. The world is integrating, and I think this integration is as inevitable as our interplanetary destiny. Given our advances in transportation and communication technology, our recent embrace of the idea of universal rights, the indisputable economic benefits of openness, and the clear record of nationalism in producing horrifically bloody conflict, I think the inertia behind globalism is tremendous. But who will define this new world order? It largely depends on when you think that world order will emerge. If it happens in the next several years, it is likely that the U.S. will shape and define it. If we wait even just another decade, it will be the U.S. in partnership with Europe. Wait longer than that and China, India, Russia, or even Brazil will play a larger role. I think each of these partners - even China and Russia - will come to the table in good faith. But just because they come in good faith doesn't mean they won't have a fundamentally different view of what life on Earth should be like. The new world order must be a liberal world order, and ideally a constitutional liberal world order, and the United States must lead the effort if we want to guarantee that.
The same is true of life on Mars. The antecedents of Martian civilization will play a major role in determining the nature of Martian civilization, and an American initiation will guarantee the promotion of American values. In perhaps two centuries (closer to our time now than we are to the American Revolution), I think we'll probably have a functional society on both Mars and Earth, as well as functional communities in space stations in between the two, and we'll probably have a single federated government. It might not happen, but I think it's quite likely. We need to concern ourselves with what that civilization will be like. If Washington and Jefferson hadn't concerned themselves with what the American civilization would be like two hundred years in the future, we would not be enjoying the life we have today. This is why I'm cautiously open to ideas like a global reserve currency, and a global government, not to mention the rapid establishment of a colony on Mars. America may get a second wind, but it may not. This is our time to shape these institutions, and I think it would leave an awful legacy if we squandered that opportunity. We have something important to offer the world.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Thursday, August 13, 2009
What I would rather talk about is who Bernanke is as a person, and why that's very important, given the historical reaction to "banking" and central banking in particular in the United States. Banks have been given a bad reputation by Federalists ("Banks have done more injury to the religion, morality, tranquility, prosperity, and even wealth of the nation than they can have done or ever will do good" - John Adams), Democratic-Republicans ("I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies" - Thomas Jefferson), and Jacksonian Democrats ("The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it" - Andrew Jackson). Over time, of course, many politicians eventually came around to the Hamiltonian conclusion that a national or central bank to manage the money supply wasn't necessarily a bad thing; that it could do a great deal of good. Even James Madison, a contemporary of Hamilton and early opponent of central banking and bankers in general, relented and gave us our second national bank. But the early - and broad - opposition of the founders to banking interests stuck.
This is what I find to be so ironic about the ebb and flow of populism in America, specifically with respect to the populist position on central banking. In Jefferson and Bryan's time, the concern was that bankers were too tight-fisted, and that creating a central bank to help finance government deficits would allow private insiders to profit off of taxpayers. Today, you have the opposite concern. The Ron Pauls of the world think the opposite is true - that the Fed is creating too much money. Granted, Ron Paul's libertarianism - while not exactly the corporatism that Bryan decried - is also a far cry from populism. But it is a populist movement in it's deliberate "us vs. them", anti-establishment, pro-common man mentality. The collective memory of stagflation in the 1970s made impoverishment-by-central-bank-manipulation fear a new staple of American populism, which is why it meshes so well with libertarianism today. It is in this sense that the seemingly paradoxical blending of populism and libertarianism, while not necessarily internally consistent, is highly functional at the level of the political movement. A populist that doesn't like foreign intervention and wants to legalize marijuana is going to find the most solace and organization among the Ron Paul community (Dennis Kucinich would also give them solace, but not as much organization).
Now back to the purported enemy - the bankers.
To truly get a grasp on how different this is, you have to understand the extent to which the Fed chair is a banker's banker. His job is to lend money to the money-changers, to make sure they have enough funds to stay in business from day to day. The press hangs on the Fed's every word, and global markets shift in response. Statements released from the clandestine Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings are scrutinized like papal encyclicals. For example, after Wednesday, August 12th's meeting, reporters made headlines with the fact that the language describing the pace of economic contraction changed from "slowing" (July's statement) to "leveling out" (August's statement). Chairman Greenspan was known as "the maestro", and during the Asian financial crisis he was on the "committee to save the world". As a presidential candidate, John McCain quipped that if Greenspan ever died he would put dark sunglasses on him and prop him up like a scene out of "Weekend at Bernie's". Such is the mystery, adoration, and power surrounding the Federal Reserve Board and the Fed chair.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
I think a lot about think tanks can be predicted based on how they're financed. In my policy think tank world, financing primarily comes from donations/endowments, private foundations, and the government. The "safest," most objective think tanks are actually those that rely largely on government funding. A lot of people may find this ironic, but it makes sense. Power in Washington shifts quite regularly, and despite the bad rap they get, the ubiquitous "bureaucracy" that manages these contracts is quite non-partisan and focused on very specific problems, which requires very specific research. Often the subject matter itself is dictated by political forces (i.e. - "home ownership" research replaced "low income housing tax credit" research during the Clinton-Bush transition), but the conclusions are not affected by changing political winds. Government contracts undergo a great deal of scrutiny - significantly more than grants from private foundations. If either the agency or the think tank involved in a contract were guilty of bias, it wouldn't take long at all for their competitors to identify that bias. These contracts also often require external panels and working groups to review the products before release to the public. Panels are usually composed of people from universities and other think tanks, and they also won't countenance a product that isn't objective.
Think tanks that operate using endowments and donations are ironically the least objective. These are organizations like the libertarian Cato, liberal Economic Policy Institute, or conservative Heritage Foundation. It's not that they produce bad analysis. They are simply more normative publications, and I feel that they regularly leave out important counter-arguments or findings. These sorts of "think tanks" are usually easy to identify because they regularly use ideological language (libertarian, "progressive", and conservative, respectively for those examples), and challenge or "call out" individual politicians. I think these groups are best thought of as advocacy groups that do research, rather than true research institutions.
A middle ground is funding by private foundations. Private foundations lie on a spectrum of ideological intensity. Usually, a think tank that is recognized as being objective isn't going to be budged by the ideological imperatives of a private foundation they get money from - and I'd say almost all of these types of grants give researchers final editorial sign off on content and conclusions.
The unfortunate thing is that the less objective a funding source is, the more interesting it is for researchers (because it usually means a freer hand). The government decides what questions get answered when they sign a contract with a think tank. Private institutes accept unsolicited proposals from think tanks, which provides somewhat greater freedom. Endowments provide complete freedom for researchers to pursue the questions they're interested in. So it's a mixed bag. I think a combination of these three funding sources is the best way to ensure that a think tank is objective, nimble, and can target research questions that are the most interesting to answer.
Think tanks have a range of missions. Some are pure government contractors - very objective, very focused and concrete, and very non-partisan. Others, like Urban, have a general goal of "understanding policies that support low income families", but because of their substantial government contracting, they approach these questions in a more or less non-partisan way. The final group, which I described above, are really just advocacy groups that publish research reports. They often employ smart people and put out interesting stuff - but I put about as much stock in them as I do other purely advocacy groups.
What's rarest is a think tank that blends practical and abstract/empirical and theoretical research the way a university department would, with considerable independence from government contract work, nevertheless maintaining a strong reputation for objectivity. That's a very hard balance to strike, and there are only a few that I think can do it. The Brookings Institution is one. The Council on Foreign Relations and the American Enterprise Institute are others (although AEI has a much clearer ideological bent than Brookings or CFR, but I don't think they "assume their own conclusions" the way Cato, EPI, or Heritage seem to). So is the Woodrow Wilson Center (although the Wilson Center does rely on government money, my understanding is that it is direct Congressional funding, not more constraining research contracts with executive agencies). Eventually I'd love to work at one of these types of organizations - essentially a university environment without the teaching or tenure, and strong connections to policymakers without being mere contractors. The Urban Institute comes quite close to this atmosphere, so I'm satisfied. But it's still somewhat of a Brookings Institution/government contractor hybrid.
Think tanks are very important for policy-makers. Universities are simply too insular and overburdened with teaching and academic research to be the sole source of policy research. But it's very important to understand what differentiates different policy shops. Heritage is no Abt Associates, and neither of these companies are comparable to Brookings. You just have to understand the lay of the land before you believe everything you read.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
The most immediate threat to the welfare of the citizens of Maryland in the present age arises not from excessive power in their state government, but from a lack of power which prevents their state government from acting effectively... it must be recognized that... oppression can result as much from governmentalThe commission (and later, the convention) position was that the growth of federal power was in part achieved by default, and attributable to the unwillingness of the states to use their inherent powers to meet the needs of their citizens. My personal view (and one that is very nearly expressed by Richard Homan, a Washington Post reporter who wrote about the convention at the time), is that this non-reactionary expression of states' rights - probably most forcefully held by Eney, of all the delegates - was doomed to failure given the charged climate of the late 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 - only weeks before the constitution would be voted on by Marylanders. Baltimore was one of many cities ravaged by looting and riots, following the news. Governor Spiro Agnew received national attention for calling out the National Guard to suppress the riot, and brow-beating leaders in the black community for not taking a stronger stand against the violence. This position catapulted Agnew onto the presidential ticket with Richard Nixon in the next election. In this charged environment, the idea of "states' rights" pushed by convention delegates was unfairly maligned as a neo-Confederate expression of white privilege. Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the president of the Maryland NAACP and a delegate to the convention, singled Eney out for criticism on this matter.
inaction, as it can from governmental action.
Since 1968, the very term "states' rights" has been presumed to be reactionary and even "code" for racism. Ronald Reagan famously declared his support for "states' rights" at the Neshoba County fair in 1980, which many critics have identified as a thinly veiled sympathy for segregation. While I don't have time to address the Reagan incident here, I will say that I think the idea that "states' rights" is code for racism is lazy analysis and deeply flawed. It's very easy to cut corners by arguing that something you don't have evidence for is some sort of secret code, which by definition there is no evidence for. This reaction against the very idea of "states' rights" has prevented the states from maturing and reforming themselves into institutions that can support and serve their citizens, forcing the federal government to step in and provide solutions.
I was finishing this history of the Maryland Constitutional Convention at the same time that the health reform debate in Washington really began to pick up steam. It made me think of two things; first, the success of the 1996 welfare reform beyond anybody's expectations, and second, the rush to a national health reform despite promising developments in certain states.
In 1996, with Newt Gingrich's Republicans in ascendancy, the Clinton administration angered many liberals by instituting a welfare reform that would cut benefits and tighten eligibility requirements generally, but provide the states with enormous latitude for implementing these and other reforms in the spirit of Brandeis's conception of the states as "laboratories of democracy". Policy analysts have thoroughly gleaned lessons from the success stories, and these lessons have subsequently been adopted in other states. Welfare rolls were reduced tremendously by the reform, and welfare is now able to target the families that need the most support. In contrast, most health reform plans we hear today are proposals for change at the federal level. This is occurring despite the fact that some of the most promising reforms (for example, by Mitt Romney, a Republican governor of Massachusetts) are already being implemented at the state level. Instead of betting on the best federal solution, why don't we learn the lesson that Clinton taught liberal Democrats in the 1990s: forcing the states to take responsibility for reform does not preclude reform - and if any reform must occur at the federal level, experimenting with various approaches at the state level can provide valuable insights before we bet the farm on a single solution.
I'm not terrified of an active federal government, like many are. And there are real problems with health care that may merit government intervention. But we need to look back to the Clinton administration and consider the possibility that there is a role for wider states rights in this reform process.
"States' rights" should not have a negative connotation in this country. For a lot of people, I don't think it does. But for some of the most reform-minded people, the idea of state power is still highly suspect. Historically speaking, I suppose I understand that impulse. But I still don't think it's right. The Maryland Constitution of 1968 was not eventually ratified, but its attempt to empower the state of Maryland to solve the problems of Maryland shouldn't be lost on us. Perhaps I'm biased because of my admiration for H. Vernon Eney, but I think we can still derive lessons from his relatively conservative, card-carrying Democratic, thoroughly reformist approach to states' rights today.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Friday, June 5, 2009
Skepticism of Modernism
Even over the course of writing this post I've become more optimistic, not only about the fact that the lessons of postmodernism are not lost on natural scientists, but that the future will provide an intriguing and fruitful synthesis of modern scientific foundations and postmodern deconstructions of those foundations. Indeed, many of the greatest discoveries of the past century have already embraced this synthesis.
I think Keynes would have appreciated the mission of Facts and other stubborn things. Keynes is both celebrated and derided for being a very speculative thinker. He would tinker with ideas even if he wasn't exactly sure where he fell on an issue. He felt free to muse - sometimes quite comically -about issues without cowering at the thought that some people might target and try to discredit him for those musings.
But we know that Keynes would have appreciated the work we do here, and we heartily agree with the old Cambridge don that:
"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of
thoughts on the unthinking".
-J.M. Keynes 15 July 1933
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Actually, what I found most surprising about Evan's post was that it was decidedly more negative than the usual narrative you hear, and it is precisely this relatively negative outlook that I want to address. The more common storyline, I believe, is that local media and print media is dying at the same time that TV news is being dumbed down and sub-divided into ideological camps. Polarization in and of itself doesn't have to be bad, but the polarization we are seeing now seems to be contributing more heat than light to the debate. Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity may personally be genuine in what they are reporting, but the market-segmenting arrangement between MSNBC and Fox itself is more akin to a cable-news Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, dividing the market in half, than it is to a meaningful debate between two differing perspectives). In the no-man's land that's left in the middle (I suppose this would be Warsaw if I were to continue the World War II analogy), we have CNN that increasingly descends into flashy gimmicks that avoid the ideological confrontations of Fox and MSNBC - and CNN (and other middle of the road sources) end up avoiding real reporting in the process.
A Cable News Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
That's the downside of the "usual narrative".
The upside is "Web 2.0"; the democratization of media as a result of Youtube, blogs, and even Wikipedia. The story goes that while the print media is failing to adapt, and cable news is failing to deliver, the blogosphere is creating a network of private citizen-reporters prepared to keep the elites (both in positions of power and in the media itself) honest.
I see two problems with this "good news/bad news" story, which may help to buttress Evan's concerns. First, many blogs themselves rely on re-posting, re-analyzing, or simply aggregating the work done by the "mainstream media". Obviously this serves an important chastizing function, but it is unclear what the blogosphere would look like without the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. Could they pick up the slack and create new news? The beauty of blogs is that anybody can create one, absorb information, and reorganize their own thoughts. We do this all the time. But that isn't necessarily conducive to uncovering new stories.
My second concern centers on what blogs don't allow us to do. What bloggers can't do (at least out of their blogging revenue - if they even have that) is buy a plane ticket to Mexico City to investigate swine flu, and then stop by Atlanta on the way back to the office to consult with the CDC about what all this really means. This is the work of real reporters - the very reporters that are being laid off or re-branded by newspapers and cable TV shows. Some of this investigating can be done through sites like Youtube. Indeed, in many cases the mainstream media is now using videos posted by private citizens as material for their own shows (the George Allen "macaca" incident, linked above, comes to mind here). But as a general rule, bloggers don't have the access that traditional reporters do, and they also don't have the same reporting standards. This isn't to say that there aren't objective and rigorous bloggers - but there isn't the same obligation to double-check sources and edit material. By the time some blog stories get debunked, the story itself is so thoroughly embedded that often it can't be dislodged (i.e. - that Obama is a Muslim).
What I'd like to emphasize is that neither of these burdens should be insurmountable. Bloggers can and already have started creating new content. You don't have to fly to Mexico City or Atlanta these days, because there are local bloggers in those locations that can be networked with. The CDC can be reached by email, as can the Mexican government. Pictures and videos to highlight the blog post are a Google search (and Photoshop session) away. As for standards, I think the question of how much reporting standards really help is an open one. They may prevent certain news from reaching us that we would have wanted to hear. The National Enquirer - a notoriously low standard publication - actually gets the story right a lot of the time, and is therefore able to break news long before the "mainstream media" feels comfortable reporting it. They proved that this past campaign season, when they were first to break the (quite accurate) story of John Edwards's affair with a staffer. Even if problems do occur, debunking things is practically an American past-time. We love doing it, and even if many people take the original story hook, line, and sinker, we practically can guarantee that it won't go unchallenged.
I think cautious optimism is the way to approach the restructuring of the news industry. Evan's concerns are completely valid, but I think it's important to recognize that what we are seeing is what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction". Old industries are collapsing precisely because they are being made obsolete by new industries. My guess is the blogosphere will pick up the slack and we will be fine, and in fact we'll probably see the reemergence of many traditional news organizations in this new medium (as we have already seen with The Atlantic, whose website is more of a blogging network than it is an online magazine). The question is - what kind of sneaky stuff will those in power be able to slip by with while the blogosphere is still learning the ropes? If recent history is any indication, I'm happy to say that I think the answer is "not much".