I was posed a question over Christmas. It was respectful and well-meaning, but the gist of it was, “Why do you bother to do this? You’re no expert, and sometimes you’re wrong.”
And that’s perfectly true: I have no degree in political science, nor even one in journalism. From time to time I’ll make a mistake — sometimes an egregious one. It’s even possible that the entire premise of an article might be completely off-base. These are all quite valid points, and it’s worth remembering them when you read: I might be wrong.
On the other hand, it’s occasionally possible everyone else is wrong.
CNN has been running a headline since the 24th: “House Republicans Block $2000 Stimulus Checks“. This is technically true; it’s also technically true that everyone who ate pickles in 1824 has since died. What actually happened is rather more complex; a better headline might be that “Action Was Delayed Until Monday” — but that won’t drive clicks or win ad dollars.
This most recent chapter in the ongoing battle began when Trump objected (on Twitter) to a measure in the omnibus bill that offered $600, saying it’s nowhere near enough and threatening a veto — a threat he underlined by actually vetoing the Defense Authorization Act. However, by the time his objections hit the news, much of Congress had already left town for a Christmas break, and renegotiating the six-thousand-page omnibus simply wasn’t going to happen. Both the Majority and Minority Leaders wrote public positions on the night of the 23rd, and Congress plans to return on Monday the 28th to take up the issue.
What actually happened during the pro forma House session on Christmas Eve was that a nearly empty chamber was offered a simple bill, to be passed by acclamation, which would change the number in the omnibus. Neither party leader was present and there was no quorum; it was a stunt designed to win headlines, and it took less than a minute of floor time — because that sort of bill can be derailed by even a single objection, inevitable even over the holidays. But, since there’s no way for there to be new action on the point over Christmas, that’s five days of anti-Republican news articles that we’ll see before the House returns on Monday.
(Before we condemn Congress for leaving town, it’s worth noting that Trump offered his objection while enroute to some Christmas golfing in Florida. He’d mentioned it previously, but there wasn’t much in the way of context until he made good on his promise to veto the annual NDAA — something which no president has done in decades. There’s no longer any doubt; the man’s got nothing to lose.)
Another thing that should be made clear: These aren’t cash gifts from the government. They’re rebate checks that are being advanced from your upcoming tax returns. Most of us can file our taxes in a few days and get the full amount. We won’t see any change on this until the new Congress acts on it after the New Year, and even then, it’s not certain.
So what Trump is doing is also a stunt. It’s an immensely popular one, sure, but the only real impact will be to delay payments past the point where they’ll be helpful, all the while (temporarily) derailing dozens of federal and state programs designed to offset the impact of COVID on the economy. Unless the omnibus bill is signed in time, it’s possible that hundreds of thousands of evictions will get filed on the 2nd of January — and that’s just one problem among many.
So CNN’s headline about Republicans is egregiously misleading, but then so is any that suggests Trump’s doing the right thing or that Democrats are being anything other than opportunist. The real COVID relief, if there is any, will filter down through state and federal programs like Unemployment — it’s in the rest of the bill, which Trump is delaying. Aside from that, the bottom line is this: If you want real COVID relief in a timely fashion, you should probably file your tax return the moment your forms arrive, because the I.R.S. is here to help you. (And no, I’m also not a tax expert, and I’m not allowed to give tax advice. Which this isn’t; it’s an ironic statement invoking hyperbole.)
The original question stands: Why do I bother to write these things? The truth is too complicated to be easily accessible; reality shows us precious few heroes and a plethora of villains. What’s more, by tomorrow night even the facts of the matter will change, superseded by a set of new facts: The new reality will be worked out in Congress on Monday and Tuesday, presuming Trump doesn’t pitch another tantrum.
There is value to be had if my readers, through reading my articles and those of like-minded people, get in the habit of doubting the headlines, particularly those that offer partisan blame for systemic problems. That’s a good reason for me to keep writing. But what really drives me is the old proverb: It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
We live in the information age, and the collective learning of humanity is at our fingertips, on portable devices and even our watches. The paradox, however, is that truth is as inaccessible as it ever has been, maybe even more so. It’s buried in misinformation, disinformation, statistics, and outright lies. Our perceptions are being deliberately altered; our beliefs willfully re-engineered.
In the midst of all this, there’s precious little I can accomplish — particularly since I’m as fallible as anyone. I have my own biases; I have limits. Even more telling: I’ve got maybe two hundred regular readers.
One candle doesn’t cast much light in all this endless night. But it’s a start — and it beats hell out of cursing the darkness.
8:47PM: Trump signed the bill. Congress is back in town, though; no vacations for them. Such a prankster he is!
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