Gotcha!

April 5th, 2017

Like most people, I don’t like being suckered. But I was well and truly suckered by Aaron Patrick of the Australian Financial Review today. Patrick wrote to me saying he was doing a feature article on penalty rates and I gave him a long interview setting out my position. In particular, I made the point that, if (say) a 10 per cent reduction in wages produced only a 1 per cent increase in hours of work demanded by employers, the average worker would end up doing more work for less money. This is a standard point in the analysis of minimum wages.

As it turned out, I was wasting my breath. All Patrick wanted was the concession that lower wages might produce some increase in employment, thereby justifying the Gotcha! headline ‘Even union economists accept cutting penalty rates creates jobs’.

Given my history with the Fin, I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. But my general experience, even since Michael Stutchbury became editor, has been that most AFR journalists are straightforward professionals.

Also, most journalists these days understand that the game has changed with the rise of blogs and social media. Twenty years ago, the only response to a shoddy smear like Patrick’s would be a letter to the editor, which might or might not get published long after the event. Now, I can respond here and on Twitter, Facebook and so on. My readership might not be as big as the measured circulation of the AFR, but, after you deduct all the people who only look at the business pages, it’s not that different.

In any case, Patrick and the Fin are on a hiding to nothing with this one. Most people work for a living, and most have worked out by now that when the bosses talk about flexibility and productivity, they mean “work more for less”.

  1. Ben
    April 5th, 2017 at 21:45 | #1

    “if (say) a 10 per cent reduction in wages produced only a 1 per cent increase in hours of work demanded by employers, the average worker would end up doing less work for more money.”

    Am I misunderstanding something, or should that read ‘more work for less money’?

  2. Newtownian
    April 5th, 2017 at 22:16 | #2

    So are you going to have a try at getting a run on Mediawatch? Seems in line with their brief items. Cant hurt……assuming they can be trusted.

  3. jrkrideau
    April 6th, 2017 at 01:59 | #3

    @Ben
    I was wondering about that too? The original statement seems just a touch counterintuitive.

  4. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2017 at 05:21 | #4

    @1&3 Sorry about that mental typo! Fixed now.

    @2 I don’t think this quite rises to Media Watch levels, but it was pretty annoying

  5. Greg McKenzie
    April 6th, 2017 at 08:38 | #5

    Well done John! The more we put right the misreporting by some journalists the more we fight against the bigotry of liberal fundamentalism. The workers knows when they are being exploited. No delusional journalist will change that cold dose of reality.

  6. Ikonoclast
    April 6th, 2017 at 09:12 | #6

    The neoliberal shills or “press” are a pack of lying scoundrels. Their web of lies still plays a significant propaganda role in propping up neoliberal exploitation of workers, oppression of the non-working poor and in inducing significant levels of false consciousness in the uneducated sections of our population and those unable to think critically and analytically for themselves.

    Their time will come (the neoliberals I mean and not in a good way for them). Processes which can’t continue indefinitely, don’t. A crisis will arrive. The people will feel betrayed when they see the dead-end they have been lead into, namely an economic and environmental emergency. Then the people will act, peaceably I hope – if peaceable change is even permitted by the reactionaries – to throw neoliberalism into the dust-bin of history.

  7. April 6th, 2017 at 09:15 | #7

    Send a warm and friendly personal note to all of his Twitter followers.

  8. Smith
    April 6th, 2017 at 09:32 | #8

    Journalists don’t write the headlines. What does the article say about what you said?

  9. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2017 at 10:55 | #9

    @Smith

    As a general point to Smith, if you’re only going to contribute reflexive contrarianism, I’d like to see a better standard than you’re delivering at the moment.

    On your question, having written hundreds of columns, I’m perfectly aware that journalists don’t write the headlines. If the headline had misrepresented the content of the article, I’d be complaining about the subeditor, not the journo.

    Feel free to check. I’m not going to link, but Google will get you behind the paywal.

  10. Smith
    April 6th, 2017 at 11:28 | #10

    @John Quiggin

    Very good suggestion. The article says

    Even staunch left-wing economists such as John Quiggin from the University of Queensland accept that a reduction in penalty rates could create jobs – he just doesn’t think there will be enough to make the change worthwhile.

    “There is an effect but most evidence is that it isn’t large,” says Quiggin, who was also a union witness in the penalty rates case.

    It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve been misrepresented in the article. It quotes you directly as saying there will be a small positive effect on jobs, and summarises your view by saying cutting penalty rates could – not will – create jobs, but it’s not worth doing.

  11. J-D
    April 6th, 2017 at 11:56 | #11

    @Smith
    Compare that text with one possible alternative version:

    On the other side, John Quiggin, an economist from the University of Queensland who was a union witness in the case, rejects the argument for reducing penalty rates. He says that if it increases employment at all, the evidence shows that the effect is too small to make the change worthwhile.

    The factual content is practically identical, but the presentations are significantly different. It’s usually fairly easy to distort somebody’s emphasis without factual inaccuracy in reporting their views.

  12. Smith
    April 6th, 2017 at 12:29 | #12

    @J-D

    The presentations are not different. Any reasonable reader of the article would conclude that “John Quiggin …rejects the argument for reducing penalty rates”.

    The problem is with the headline which says that union economists (a sly dig) say that cutting penalty rates “creates jobs”, that is, will create jobs, without qualification, which is a misrepresentation.

  13. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2017 at 12:54 | #13

    The headline accurately summarizes the lead sentence “Even the brains behind the unions’ penalty rates argument believe that lowering the cost of employees on Saturdays and Sunday will create jobs”, so if the headline was dishonest, as you agree, so was the article.

    And, as I said in the OP, the real problem wasn’t what was in the article, but what was deliberately omitted, namely the entire argument that I explained in detail, on the assumption that I was talking to a serious journalist, rather than a tabloid hack.

  14. Smith
    April 6th, 2017 at 13:22 | #14

    @John Quiggin

    I think we have convergence. The lead sentence is arguably misleading, because it says “will” whereas one of unions’ economists, Professor Jeff Borland, says “may” (though you are quoted as saying there “is” an effect).

    On your larger point, well, yes, but the journalist spoke to at least two people besides you, he no doubt had a word limit and would not have had the space, even if he had the inclination, to report all the nuances of all the arguments.

    As for serious journalists, there are few if any left at the AFR, possibly excepting Laura Tingle. The business model these days is lots of short pieces put together quickly with a view to getting lots of clicks. Younger journalists who don’t have the protection of old employment arrangements are paid by the click. It is not a model conducive to careful consideration of detailed arguments.

  15. J-D
    April 6th, 2017 at 13:58 | #15

    @Smith
    The simplest device for placing emphasis is the use of words that have that primary function; in this case the relevant words are ‘even’ and ‘just’. What is the word ‘even’ doing at the beginning of the sentence ‘Even staunch left-wing economists such as John Quiggin …’, and at the beginning of the sentence ‘Even the brains behind the unions’ penalty rates argument …’? It’s true that including it doesn’t alter the factual content of the statement, but that means that omitting it wouldn’t alter the factual content either, so what is it doing there? (Two sentences beginning ‘Even …’ — that’s a giveaway for the careful reader.) Similarly, what’s the difference between ‘he doesn’t think’ and ‘he just doesn’t think’? If you don’t think there’s any, why is the word ‘just’ included? These things have an effect on readers.

    (There are other devices apart from the use of this kind of word. Word order is a more complex one: consider the difference between ‘It is ugly, but it is fragrant’ and ‘It is fragrant, but it is ugly’, both of which have the same factual content.)

    Your explanation about what the journalist was doing is horribly plausible, but it doesn’t amount to showing that there was no distortion of John Quiggin’s viewpoint; rather, it suggests that the distortion was not the result of the journalist’s conscious intent but rather the result of a slapdash approach which in turn was the consequence of the employer not paying for anything better.

  16. Smith
    April 6th, 2017 at 14:27 | #16

    @J-D

    I agree that ‘even’ in this context, is editorialising. The impression conveyed is that the proposition that penalty rate cuts create jobs is so supported by the evidence that ‘even’ economists who might be philosophically opposed to cutting wages are compelled by the evidence to concede the point.

    The use of ‘just’ in this context is also editorialising, because it trivialises the negatives of the wage cut.

    So I think we are agreed that this wasn’t a straight piece of reportage. It mixed straight reporting with the journalist’s opinions. Alas, that is the modern way. It’s difficult to find any journalism anywhere, even in what is supposed to be the new sections of high quality newspapers, that is free of the journalist’s prejudices.

    But I don’t think there was any egregious misrepresentation in the piece.

  17. Ikonoclast
    April 6th, 2017 at 15:29 | #17

    Quibble, quibble, quibble. The lying press, as a compound entity in this case, deliberately distorted, omitted and twisted the message. If anyone is left of alt-right these days they get distorted and shredded by the lying neoliberal-supporting press. And they have the deep pockets for all that propagandizing. It’s dirty pool. The gloves need to come off against them.

  18. Ikonoclast
    April 6th, 2017 at 15:42 | #18

    So that we don’t forget, this is how the right, alt-right neoliberals really act when they sense the people might get the smallest things going their way.

  19. Smith
    April 6th, 2017 at 16:37 | #19

    @Ikonoclast

    I prefer Barbara Dane’s album “I Hate the Capitalist System”, featuring the song “The Kent State Massacre”, released in 1973. You can get it on iTunes.

  20. chrisl
    April 6th, 2017 at 17:29 | #20

    Wow John Quiggin has something in common with Donald Trump!
    The media misrepresents them!
    And they fight back on social media.
    That is why Donald Trump tweets so much
    #fake news

  21. rog
    April 6th, 2017 at 17:41 | #21

    I’m afraid John that the AFR is just another click bait tabloid full of bizarre conspiracies and salacious gossip and nothing much else. People want to be entertained and the AFR meets that need.

  22. rog
    April 6th, 2017 at 17:43 | #22

    @chrisl The obvious error in your analogy is that Trump is fake news.

  23. John Goss
    April 6th, 2017 at 17:46 | #23

    The piece by Aaron Patrick should have been labelled ‘Opinion’ as he was arguing a line. It was not reportage. He quoted selectively from a number of people to put together his piece. This sort of article is becoming increasingly common in the AFR. Most of their articles on energy policy and renewable energy recently are similarly misleading. They don’t often print falsehoods, but they string statements together in such a misleading way that the overall impression is a big fat lie. As Iconoclast says the capitalist press has always been misleading, but it has got much worse in recent years.

  24. Smith
    April 6th, 2017 at 17:57 | #24

    @rog

    Apart the daily stories about the television CEO and the employee he had an affair with, and the conspicuous consumption of law firm partners who are trying to defect from one firm to another, and headlines like “Accused Yahoo hacker Karim Baratov had Lamborghini, Aston Martin at 22″and the endless one-percenter real estate masturbation, what’s the gossip?

  25. April 6th, 2017 at 18:51 | #25

    The bizarre press convention that the authors of published pieces are not responsible for the headlines is obsolete. It arose when the typesetting of headlines was a black art and had for technical reasons to be centralised. With computer layout this problem has largely disappeared. The blogosphere follows the normal rule that the headline is part of the article and the author is responsible. I expect most people under 40 assume that is also the rule in the press. If editors Ned to change the proposed headline, they can get back to the reporter or columnist.

  26. April 7th, 2017 at 02:11 | #26

    Aaron Patrick was a Labor Party organizer when I was at university, and in the Fabians IIRC.

    I assumed he’d jumped ship to the Liberals long ago, but about five years ago was told he was still in the ALP. It’s not just the post parliamentary mob who like to hang out with the IPA.

  27. J-D
    April 7th, 2017 at 07:15 | #27

    @chrisl

    The fact that some allegations of misrepresentation are spurious does not mean that all allegations of misrepresentation are spurious. You cannot determine the validity of an accusation by its content, but only by further inquiry.

  28. Smith
    April 7th, 2017 at 09:24 | #28

    There’s another round of journalist redundancies happening at that extinct volcano, Fairfax, though the journos at the AFR seem to be protected on this occasion. But in a few years time they will all be gone, with the old hands spending their days in the pub, wistfully telling stories about the glory days when Paddy McGuinness was editor.

  29. Ikonoclast
    April 7th, 2017 at 10:30 | #29

    The day all MSM goes extinct will be a great day, a “red letter” day. 😉

  30. Tim Macknay
    April 7th, 2017 at 11:24 | #30

    This is O/T, but apparently the US has just launched a large scale missile attack on Syria.

  31. shobha VARKEY
    April 7th, 2017 at 11:25 | #31

    Hold on, there could be a petition we could sign to help AFR get its facts straight? All the best. Cheers. Shobha

  32. Smith
    April 7th, 2017 at 11:35 | #32

    @Tim Macknay

    CNN:” Hillary Clinton called on the United States to take out Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s Air Force”

    And then it happened. She might as well be President.

  33. Ikonoclast
    April 7th, 2017 at 13:12 | #33

    @Smith

    Maybe she is President… of the Deep State. Queue Twilight Zone music, or maybe X Files music.

  34. John Quiggin
    April 7th, 2017 at 16:39 | #34

    @James Wimberley

    This is an interesting point

  35. John Quiggin
    April 7th, 2017 at 16:40 | #35

    @Smith

    Certainly those on the left who supported Trump on the grounds that Clinton was an irresponsible warmonger have some rethinking to do. Not that this excuses Clinton of course, but it ought to have been obvious that Trump was both irresponsible and unpredictable.

  36. Smith
    April 7th, 2017 at 17:09 | #36

    @John Quiggin

    You could swap the proper nouns Trump and Clinton wherever they appear in your comment and it would be just as true.

    The lessons is this: whenever the President – any President – is advised by the generals that you’ve gotta this and you’ve gotta do that, the President always agrees. The uniforms and the gravity of the situation gets them every time. Presidents come and go, but the generals are always there. It’s a brave President who tells the generals “nah, I’m not going to do what you recommend”. After all, war is what they’ve been doing all their adult lives. They know what they’re talking about, and generals can be very persuasive.

    I know this is how it happens because I saw it on The West Wing.

  37. derrida derider
    April 7th, 2017 at 17:40 | #37

    Economics aside, on which there are respectable arguments on both sides, I’ve never understood how pushing labour market flexibility could ever make political sense even for the tories.

    There are about half a million employers in Oz, who will indeed lap this stuff up. But there are well over ten million employees. Even older employees who are not in “flexible” work tend to learn from their young adult kids just what such work can mean for employees.

    You’d think the Libs would have learnt from Workchoices – those union ads against it rang true to millions of conservative voters.

  38. J-D
    April 8th, 2017 at 06:33 | #38

    @derrida derider

    In my experience, it’s fairly common (although far from universal) for employees to be surprised when employers treat them badly. What does this tell me? It tells me that a lot of employees expect their employers to treat them well. That’s not a completely irrational expectation; there are plenty of examples of employers treating employees well. The thing — the point that lots of employees miss — is that you can’t rely on this. There are plenty of examples of employers treating employees well, but there are also plenty of examples of employers treating employees badly — sometimes shockingly, appallingly, outrageously badly. When that happens, I feel shocked, appalled, outraged — but not surprised. But the people who do feel surprised — they are people who up to the moment when it happens to them have assumed that it can’t happen to them, that their employers will just naturally continue to treat them well. For people who operate on that assumption, the idea of allowing more flexibility to employers probably seems unobjectionable; and perhaps there are a lot of those people.

  39. Julie Thomas
    April 8th, 2017 at 07:23 | #39

    @J-D

    Yes this is true and there is also the tendency that people have to ‘blame the victim’

    People want to believe that the world is a safe and fair place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people so if someone has been lucky enough to have never been treated badly by an employer they are likely to blame the employee who has been treated badly for what has happened to them rather than acknowledge that employers are not necessarily ‘superior’ people.

  40. John Quiggin
    April 8th, 2017 at 11:33 | #40

    @Smith

    Agreed on Barbara Dane. Great stuff!

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