Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Death of the Journalist

-- or at least the journalist columnist.

Since the rise of blogging -- and, particularly, the rise of its respectability, so that we get serious scholars and experts willing to blog -- I've become more aware of the paucity of interesting and insightful, or even correct, thinking in official newspaper columns. Here's two recent examples.

Screenwriter Craig Mazin took apart an article criticizing residual payments for screenwriters by columnist Brooks Barnes of the New York Times in his blog. While there are certainly a lot
ways to compensate writers for their work, and there's no reason not to discuss them, the column was simply poorly researched (essentially echoing bullshit studio press releases about how hard they have it, the kind of press releases that say ludicrous things like My Big Fat Greek Wedding didn't turn a profit) and thinking that would've made me groan if I saw it in an undergrad philosophy paper. Obviously, I might be a little biased here, so I'll leave it at that.

Yesterday Slate posted an article regarding the draft, essentially arguing that an all-volunteer army is incapable of maintaining the manpower levels required for extended overseas operations -- thus we either need to institute a draft or (I take it what the author's really trying to get at) get out of Iraq. The problem I habve with this article is that it's filled with the same kind of generic, uninformative and uninteresting pap that so much of mainstream journalism is.

Compare to Freakonomics author Steven Levitt's recent column, now being hosted at the New York Times. This article is full of interesting insights and new ways of looking at the problem, not merely a rehash of ideas that were tired decades ago. I thought this quote from the article was particularly nice:

A draft is essentially a large, very concentrated tax on those who are drafted.

Because it points to a core part of the issue: what the draft does is allow us to not pay our soldiers market value for their labor and the risks they take. If we keep to the all-volunteer army we have to raise salaries, benefits, and moderate the sacrifices our soldiers make. But if we institute a draft, we not only get a bunch of cheap soldiers, but we also can keep the price of our volunteer soldiers lower, since we can simply replace them with what amounts to slave labor.

When I was in the service I got about 15-16 thousand a year after four years (or something close to that). Not terrible and the benefits are nice, but the sacrifices are immense too. Little to no control over where you're stationed and a lot of restrictions on your personal life. I felt that the U.S. Army, and probably other branches, was relying almost wholly on patriotism to get and keep enlisted soldiers. After all, almost all of the guys that you'd most like to keep would easily be able to get out and go into law enforcement, which is compensated much better and lets you live where you want to live.

And that was in peacetime! I can only imagine that this is even more the case now when we've got our troops trying to enforce the peace in a country much better armed and more volatile than L.A., but getting nowhere near the pay of an L.A. cop.

A volunteer army forces us to pay soldiers what they feel is sufficient compensation -- and that puts the tax on us, instead of the guys we're sending in harm's way.

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