Centrist Media Outlet Creates Cute Little Game Which, Shocker of Shockers, Hides a Narrow Corporate Political Agenda Under a Thin Veneer of “Objectivity”   Leave a comment

Well my stars isn’t this the most goddamn perfect thing in the entire world

American Public Media, the institution that produces most of your favorite NPR programming (more on that later), has provided a helpful, colorful, cheeky little game that lets you play out different choices in the federal budget.  It’s called “Budget Hero”, because Guitar Hero came out only a few months ago and totally still has that edgy youth cache so valuable in making things go viral.

There are cartoon skyscrapers whose height reflects the commitment of the federal budget to different groups of programs (defense, housing, infrastructure, etc.) You play the game by selecting different options that affect the budget (like “simplifying the tax code”, “increasing foreign aid”, and my favorite, “increasing DARPA spending”).  At any point you can see during what year your choices make the budget “go bust” in the future.

Harmless, right?  There’s a cartoon beaker on the “science and nature” skyscraper! Adorable.  And the goal of the game couldn’t be more benign:

[The game] seeks to provide a values- and fiscal-based lens for citizens to examine policy debates during this election year.  Partisan messages tend to cloud the real issues at play during campaigns, and most candidates are loath to attach detailed financial impacts to solutions which make up their platform.  Budget Hero provides an interactive experience involving policy options that have been extensively researched and vetted with non-partisan government and think tank experts to enable players to objectively evaluate candidates.

Actually playing the game, though, reveals a strict set of political priorities limiting a player’s choices and hiding a specific agenda under the guise of “objective”, “non-partisan” analysis.  Which makes it the perfect illustration of the general dynamics going on in centrist media.

Let’s take a look:

– The entire premise of the game rests on a few assumptions that immediately commit players to a centrist corporate framework.  The budget you create “goes bust” when the combined costs of federal health care programs, Social Security, and interest payments on the debt exceed government revenue.  Uhm . . . why?  We’ve had federal deficits for oh every budget that didn’t get made when the internet was changing the way everything works.  Arbitrarily saying that the government is “out of money” when the deficits are due to a specific constellation of programs hides the actual decision that is being made here: to treat automatic safety net spending as completely unacceptable if it gets too high, no matter the shape of the rest of the budget, no matter if it even negatively affects the US economy or not.

Because that depends on all sorts of other factors – the rate of economic growth, inflation and interest rates, the strength of the dollar, etc – all of which are only tangentially affected by what percentage of federal receipts are committed to automatic social safety net spending.

There’s some other chicanery on this level too.  It’s incredibly vague on whether it counts Social Security revenue as “general taxes” or not.  It shouldn’t, because there’s a separate revenue stream devoted to Social Security payments, and because counting Social Security revenue as part of the general pot of taxes was one of the Original Sins of Alan Greenspan et al which got us to this point to begin with.  Make believing there were a few extra hundred billion dollars in the federal kitty justified things like the Bush Tax Cuts and being incredibly profligate with things like wars.

– Let’s go now to the Bush Tax Cuts, and the other specific budget choices the game allows you to make.  They’re insane.  You can eliminate the mortgage interest tax deduction, one of the biggest giveaways to the middle class, but you can’t change the much lower rate capital gains are taxed at to match the tax on wages, one of the biggest giveaways to the stinking rich.  You can eliminate corporate taxes, but you can’t raise them, even though the percentage of the federal budget made up by corporate taxes is at an all-time low and the US has lower corporate taxes than 16 OECD countries.  The largest amount of money it allows you to lop off defense is $100 billion a year, even though a mutually exclusive option, the adjacent fucking option, is to draw down in Afghanistan, which saves: $80 billion a year.    I’m sure Lockheed Martin insists cutting $20 billion in non-Afghanistan-related military spending would cripple our military, but I don’t know why we should listen to them.   For some reason there’s not a “tax the living shit out of financial institutions” option.

I won’t belabor the point, but I hope it’s obvious that the specific choices the game has for concrete deficit reduction reflect a very narrow set of corporate political priorities.

Also related to the Bush Tax Cuts, the game allows a mode to “play more like the politicians do” that makes you “face the same political constraints they do” in which, you guessed it, the Bush Tax Cuts are automatically extended indefinitely.

There’s literally no subtext to the interpretation I’m giving this stuff.  It’s barely even text.  It’s like supratext that shouts out what it’s trying to do as you’re reading it.

– The narrow political interest of the game is reflected in its most specific details.  For each budget option there are “pro” arguments, “con” arguments, and an “objective” “impact summary” that describes what the likely effect on the budget will be.  The fetishizing of balance is so extreme that they allow lies into their “pro” and “con” arguments.  For example, one of the “cons” to the option of “ending subsidies to oil companies” is that “detractors say the price of oil will increase, along with everything that uses it”.  And – can you tell where this is going? – in the “objective” “impact summary” section, they declare that “ending subsidies will probably not have an affect on oil or gasoline prices”.  The fuck did they say otherwise, then?  Is their commitment to hearing “both sides” of an issue so extreme that in a stupid little game that has nothing to do with the broader dynamics that drive that bullshit, they have to replicate it?  The fuck is wrong with them?

In details to other options, they just go ahead and lie.  Including a public option for health care will “kill innovation”; the “cut $20 billion a year and get out of Afghanistan” military budget option discussed above will be “a disaster for the military, at a time when the global threats we face are as numerous and as complex as ever”.

So I hope that briefest of overviews provides some insight on the underlying centrist political agenda which serves as the hidden foundation of the game.  It’s not surprising, of course, since it’s made by American Public Media, which provides a lot of NPR content.  Fuckin’ APM and NPR.  That’s a whole ‘nother series of posts, but a quick illustration will suffice.  APM promoted Adam Davidson, who filed pro-war stories in the run-up to Lil’ Bush’s Big Adventure and through the war, up until 2006.  At which point he got picked up by NPR as a business reporter.  Suffice to say lickspittle deference to authority continued to be his bread and butter, and that conflicted interest is something that bothers other people.

Posted September 20, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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