My View: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

City Hall

Earlier this week, the Vanguard evaluated claims by a couple of columnists with the local paper on this issue of Newspapers as the Solution to Fake News.  My point in that column was skeptical, believing that newspapers and the mainstream news got a lot wrong in the last election.

There is a letter tomorrow in the local paper that makes a somewhat different point: “Sure, you aren’t going to find the latest political intrigue out of Washington within these pages, but for the most part, we lead our lives on the local level. The Enterprise has the news that affects our lives and builds our community.”

My problem here is that, while there are certain things that the local paper does very well, there are also things that the paper does not do well.  My concern is that the public does not really know what they don’t know.

One of my biggest problems has been the lack of coverage of the city’s fiscal crisis.  I would like to make a couple of points here.  First, the most-read columnist, who is highly influential on a number of issues, has never covered the city’s fiscal problems.  I get it – it’s not his bailiwick.  But the fact that you have never seen “unfunded liability” in a Bob Dunning column means that a host people in the community are largely unaware of it.

If you recall, back in 2014 when the city was contemplating revenue measures, they polled the public and, at a time when the city was about $5 million in the hole and needing a sales tax, the majority of people polled felt the city’s fiscal position was good or fair.

The public was wrong here, but why were they wrong?  Earlier this week, we pondered a lack of leadership by the council, but we can also point to a lack of coverage by the local paper.

Even when the Enterprise has covered the fiscal crisis, it gets bogged down in false equivalency.  On November 30, the article noted that the city’s unfunded liabilities are on the rise.  This was good – they reported, for the first time, that there is “a $13 million increase in the city’s unfunded liabilities for pensions, jumping from $85.3 million to $98.3 million from 2013 to 2015.”

The article quoted Robb Davis saying “this is a really urgent time we live in and we have the numbers that show that.”

This was good and, for some, undoubtedly the first time they were exposed to the issue.  Of course, the unfunded liabilities are just the tip of the iceberg and the infrastructure hit figures to be far larger.

But even within this good reporting comes the specter of “balance” and what we are starting to hear as “false equivalency.”

So, to balance out the article, the paper reports, “City staffers, however, remain optimistic in the face of these challenging numbers.”

“Yes, it’s urgent, but we have a plan that’s going to fund what we can … we’re comfortable,” said assistant city manager Kelly Stachowicz.

The paper reports, “As it currently stands, the city is not only keeping up with its annual required payments into the pension and health benefit funds, but was actually able pay an extra $2 million towards retiree healthcare costs in the 2016-2017 budget.”

“That lump sum helps mitigate some of what we might see,” said city budget manager Kelly Fletcher, comparing it to paying a larger-than-usual mortgage payment.

But is that accurate?

This reporting prompted the Vanguard to do a follow up.  What we found was that, while the city may be currently managing the situation, the cost increases will increase burden on the city.

Robb Davis told the Vanguard that “while it is true that we are ‘keeping up’ as things stand currently, the cost of ‘keeping up’ continues to grow and that crowds out funding for other projects our community needs to maintain the level of service citizens expect.

“Something must give,” he says.  “Thus, I am less sanguine than our City staff.  In fact, it is not clear to me at this point how we are going to cover everything over the next five years, given that we are not even covering critical infrastructure backlogs now.”

He concludes, “I believe we must discuss cost containment—broadly writ—and put a revenue measure before the population in the next two years.”

But this insight is missing from the Enterprise report.  In fact, they conclude on a higher note, reporting that “the city is continuing to pursue its financial goals of containing costs, and looking for new sources of revenue.”

The city is looking at hotels and has gotten a fortunate break with the potential redevelopment of Interland, but the article makes no mention of the lost potential with the defeat of Nishi and the loss of potential peripheral innovation centers.

In a subtle way, this is a perfect illustration of the false equivalency phenomena that finally got raised in 2016 with regards to the election.

As Wikipedia points out: “False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not.”

This election cycle, media critics would argue that the media, in the need to “cover both sides” or blame “both sides,” have created a false equivalence between two views or two conducts that are by no means equal.

There is nothing new here.  Back in May of 2007, the Vanguard had an article: “When “Fair and Balanced” is Less Accurate.”  At the time I wrote, “What I had given considerably more thought to is the ability to write stories as I view the facts rather than at times artificially attempting to create balance out of the express need to adhere to the principle of ‘fair and balanced.’ Unfortunately, I would suggest that such approaches at times lead one to actually bias the coverage.”

That is the problem we see in the recent example – attempting to balance the story, present both sides, actually skews the reporting because there are actually some objective facts that get distorted.

This is particularly concerning in the current local landscape, because the public does not really understand just how bad our fiscal situation is, and until they do, the solutions put forward – whether they be cutting programs, closing pools and parks, raising taxes, or building innovation centers – are not going to gain support unless the public understands the depths of our problems.

The problem is the public doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and the people with the ability to change that need to start stepping up.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 thoughts on “My View: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

  1. Barack Palin

    “That lump sum helps mitigate some of what we might see,” said city budget manager Kelly Fletcher, comparing it to paying a larger-than-usual mortgage payment.

    That’s not equivalent at all.  A mortgage is a set debt but pension and healthcare costs are always on the rise.  If I make a bigger than called for mortgage payment my debt decreases along with the length of my scheduled payments.

    1. hpierce

      You ever heard of an ARM?  Particularly in a period of rising interest rates and inflation?

      You are correct when comparing the City situation with a fied rate mortgage…

      1. Barack Palin

        You ever heard of an ARM?

        Yeah, isn’t that something that’s connected to a shoulder.

        You are correct when comparing the City situation with a fied rate mortgage…

        “fied”?  Is that part of a fee, fied, fo, fum mortgage?  Sorry, I couldn’t resist after you ridiculing me for my spelling error the other day.  What’s that saying?  Don’t throw stones………..

        You are correct when comparing the City situation with a fied rate mortgage…

        Thank you, you have no idea how much that means to me.

        1. hpierce

          Yeah… in reality, was due to a keyboard that needs cleaning… couldn’t correct easily… the “ecks” key not responding… guess I could have said fi”ecks”ed (or fi_ed)… just assumed folk would fill in the blank… glad your response was so substantive… ignoring dealing with the Adjustable Rate Mortgage aspect… either ignorant response, or ‘semi-clever’…

  2. Barack Palin

    First, the most read columnist, who is highly influential on a number of issues, has never covered the city’s fiscal problems.  I get it – it’s not his bailiwick.  But the fact that you have never seen “unfunded liability” in a Bob Dunning column, means that a host people in the community are largely unaware of it.

    I used to like Dunning’s columns but over the last several months his articles have become run of the mill and boring.  He used to be willing to take on local issues with a differnt take than the liberal PC culture that permeates in Davis.  But reading his articles now is like reading most others in Davis.  He seems to have given in to the majority.  I find myself starting one of his articles and often not bothering to finish reading them.

  3. South of Davis

    BP wrote:

    > I used to like Dunning’s columns but over the last several months his

    > articles have become run of the mill and boring

    I’ve noticed the same thing.  It almost seems like he is slowing down and planning to retire.  I just noticed that his second wife is now writing for the Enterprise:

    http://www.davisenterprise.com/features/food-and-drink/humble-pie-make-special-holiday-memories-with-christmas-cookies/

    P.S. Where else but the Davis Enterprise web site can you find stories like “Concerns raised over dog owners ignoring leash laws”?

  4. Napoleon Pig IV

    Objective, quantitative statement: “. . .  there is “a $13 million increase in the city’s unfunded liabilities for pensions, jumping from $85.3 million to $98.3 million from 2013 to 2015.”

    Objective, quantitative statement:  “. . . the city is not only keeping up with its annual required payments into the pension and health benefit funds, but was actually able pay an extra $2 million towards retiree healthcare costs in the 2016-2017 budget.”

    Subjective, unquantified statement:  “. . . the cost of ‘keeping up’ continues to grow and that crowds out funding for other projects our community needs to maintain the level of service citizens expect.”

    Subjective, unquantified statement:  “. . . it is not clear to me at this point how we are going to cover everything over the next five years, given that we are not even covering critical infrastructure backlogs now.”

    False equivalence is one of many techniques used by skilled propagandists. However, objectively determining what is “false” is harder than it looks at first glance, and “equivalence” is difficult to apply to subjectively defined problems or needs.

    So, does Davis have a financial problem looming or not? One’s conclusion depends on what we want – in quantitative terms, not vague generalities – and there doesn’t seem to be a clearly stated consensus on that.

     

    1. Frankly

      Subjective, unquantified statement:  “. . . the cost of ‘keeping up’ continues to grow and that crowds out funding for other projects our community needs to maintain the level of service citizens expect.”

      I don’t completely agree with this one.  It is not subjective given the data and the math except maybe the “service citizens expect” point.

      We can spot some of the false equivalence is what I call “but reporting”…. as in, “let me say something positive about the side of the argument that I have a bias against, but then end with some point that discredits that positive point and takes it back to support my bias.”

      I think it is beyond most people to write anything significantly in opposition to their views, opinions and values.  They would not be satisfied with their job very long being tasked to do this.  The problem isn’t so much the individual bias of a journalist, it is the aggregate bias of a news source that is fed by its body of journalists having similar bias.   In other words, there are too many liberals in journalism.

      But then there is the next problem… and it is corruption of the ethical news-reporting mission of journalism to one that attempts to shape public opinion.

      For example, Julian Assange has been questioned and has written that none of the Wikileaks emails were the result of Russian hacking. This entire Russian hacking narrative is coming from the giant liberal Democrat media establishment and are part of a foolish and dangerous effort by them to overturn or at least attempt to de-legitimize Donald Trump’s election victory. They are desperate in loss and also in embarrassment and it is this desperation that is causing them to engage in breathtaking transparent hypocrisy. They are unhinged. But the mechanisms of propaganda are still valid… repeat a lie enough times and the sheeple will believe it.

      1. Don Shor

        Julian Assange has been questioned and has written that none of the Wikileaks emails were the result of Russian hacking. This entire Russian hacking narrative is coming from the giant liberal Democrat media establishment and are part of a foolish and dangerous effort by them to overturn or at least attempt to de-legitimize Donald Trump’s election victory. They are desperate in loss and also in embarrassment and it is this desperation that is causing them to engage in breathtaking transparent hypocrisy. They are unhinged. But the mechanisms of propaganda are still valid… repeat a lie enough times and the sheeple will believe it.

        What is truly “breathtaking” is this entirely delusional paragraph.
        So in the Frankly world of critical thinking and analysis, Julian Assange is credible, but 17 intelligence agencies aren’t.
        http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/10/21/17-intelligence-agencies-russia-behind-hacking/92514592/
        Fortunately, I believe you are better able to apply your critical thinking skills to the Davis budget situation.

        We now have a mayor who is pressing the fiscal issues regularly and clearly, as he has no further political agenda. That helps. I don’t expect Bob Dunning to cover budget issues, and don’t really know why he’s so often the focus of David’s criticisms on this topic. Rich Rifkin regularly writes on budget issues, very cogently and in much detail. It seems that would have merited mention in this morning’s essay.

      2. Tia Will

        Frankly

        The problem isn’t so much the individual bias of a journalist, it is the aggregate bias of a news source that is fed by its body of journalists having similar bias.   In other words, there are too many liberals in journalism.”

        I fully agree with the first sentence. And predictably enough, fully disagree with the second. What I believe that this demonstrates is that the problem isn’t so much individual journalist bias or even the aggregate bias of a news source, but rather the individual bias of the reader.

        Interesting commentary on NPR in which it was pointed out that Republicans when polled felt that the news was biased against the president elect, while Democrats asked the same question felt that the news was biased against HRC. Not surprising, but clearly illustrates how bias is in the eye of the beholder.

      3. South of Davis

        No one seems to care about Islamic Terrorists anymore and does not support sending US troops to fight them (making defense contractors and many other politically connected firms who fund BOTH Democrats and Republicans rich) so the media needs to bring back the Cold War and start another “Arms Race” (to make defense contractors richer) so the new plan is to “blame Russia” so we can spend money to “fight Russia”…

        This is what the “sage-like” Professor Stephen Cohen (a Jewish Liberal) said THREE years ago…

        “The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia, a country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many years. If the recent tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines—particularly about the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine and, unfailingly, President Vladimir Putin—is an indication, this media malpractice is now pervasive and the new norm.

        Even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post, news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or “expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.”

        http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-12-16/princeton-nyu-professor-warns-dangers-liberal-medias-false-narratives-new-cold-war

        1. tribeUSA

          SOD–good links. Yes, there has been and continues to be nonstop efforts, by a coalition of the powers-that-be and their paid lackeys in the federal government, media, and even the intelligence agencies to paint horns on Mr. Putin. As if most countries in the world don’t hack each others communications (of all kinds) on a regular basis; this is an intrinsic central part of the evolving spy game. It is interesting that the far left (and neocons) are spearheading this new cold war anti-Russia hysteria; as contrasted with the paranoia of the right circa 60 years ago. To me, it looks like an aggression by the western oligarchs to wrest wealth and influence away from the eastern oligarchs; manifested most visibly in western meddling and machinations in Ukraine, as well as Syria. I personally think it is healthy for the western oligarchs to have some competition–remember it wasn’t until shortly after the old Soviet Union fell that we began to hear many american politicians call for the privatization or ending of social security.

  5. Alan Miller

    I believe the simple answer as to why this isn’t news in the local paper is that it is ONGOING and DULL.  Those things don’t tend to make any traditional news outlets.

  6. Marina Kalugin

    of course not. …even when one is spoonfed one’s experiences or lack thereof color it all…

    I am happy to see this title but I was hoping it would be more broad..  as this applies to so much else…

    like unless one has a child who is maimed or dies due to overvaccination, one can hardly believe it.

    I truly hope the city invests in higher level managers …

    preferably STRUCTURAL not just civil engineers with years of experience in Project Management to run the City Planning and Building…..

    And real  financial managers who have to make ends meet on less and less money while unions are asking for more and more and not caring that means fewer jobs…as that is the only solution for not enough funds and higher wages and benefits and who can truly think outside the box and get into the muck inside the box.

    Who have a knack for details and follow through and not just leave when the going gets tough..

    And not just someone who got a hand up and out as they really were not cutting it..  for whatever reason….

    Many like John Meyer wanted to live in Davis.. he got stolen away to UCD and then he came back.

    Some of the most brilliant have the street smarts and the level of care to stick it out and come back and help.

    Due to many of the Davis policies the problems are only growing exponentially…. some we were the first to instill.. and as a result have issues related to that.. as in No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

    Others are now laws and rules and regulations..

    All of which are creating an untenable environment..

    The answers are Not Nishi not Trackside and yet they are also not letting good people go or reducing benefits either..

    It to work smarter not harder and it requires the best people money can buy.. and  the best are often not the most expensive..

    And it includes making hard choices and ensuring the employees who are working are pulling their weight… not easy in the days of union reps and seniority..

    On the flip side it includes proptecting workers with a proven history of excellence when they run into a bump, a family issue, a health issue etc.. not just kicking them to the curb..

    It also includes if someone just doesn’t have the aptitude but shows up and tries, to move around the talent to best use the actual talents. …

    These are some of the things I learned in my many years with UCD.. and also at Sac State U for graduate level..

     

     

  7. quielo

    From reading the DV it appears that the problem does not exist, from reading the DV it seems the solution is to find creative ways to spend more money, such has hiring attorneys for people with immigration problems.

      1. quielo

        No, from your previous article about the expenditure of San Francisco city funds which I am conflating with recent articles on City of Davis policy, I see an article on how the city should pay for legal representation in our future. We will see.

  8. Tia Will

    quielo

    From reading the DV it appears that the problem does not exist”

    Wow !  I could not disagree more. Perhaps one could get this impression from some of the comments. However, David has been very assertive in repetitively pointing out the financial “crisis” as he has repetitively called it. I know because this has been a major point of disagreement between he and I over the years. I see the budget as a very serious problem to be addressed rigorously but not what I would call a crisis, since crisis for me as a surgeon is a very high bar involving immediate life and death decision making. David has consistently called for action in the form vigorous business expansion rather than the more incrementalist approach preferred by some.

  9. Matt Williams

    “Robb Davis told the Vanguard that “while it is true that we are ‘keeping up’ as things stand currently, the cost of ‘keeping up’ continues to grow and that crowds out funding for other projects our community needs to maintain the level of service citizens expect.”

    To put the cost of keeping up into perspective, John Bartel of Bartel Associates, the City’s actuary, provided the following projection of annual CalPERS costs for non-Safety employees to the Finance and Budget Commission on October 10th.

    2016-17 = $5,413,000

    2017-18 = $5,816,000

    2018-19 = $6,521,000

    2019-20 = $7,206,000

    2020-21 = $7,670,000

    2021-22 = $8,214,000

    2022-23 = $8,693,000

    2023-24 = $9,065,000

    2024-25 = $9,506,000

    His projection of annual Retiree Heathcare costs for safety employees (Police and Fire) were:

    2016-17 = $2,158,000

    2017-18 = $2,388,000

    2018-19 = $2,681,000

    2019-20 = $2,992,000

    2020-21 = $3,196,000

    2021-22 = $3,421,000

    2022-23 = $3,619,000

    2023-24 = $3,775,000

    2024-25 = $3,953,000

    He also provided the following projection of annual Retiree Heathcare costs to the Finance and Budget Commission on November 10th.

    2017-18 = $6,125,000

    2018-19 = $6,310,000

    2019-20 = $6,500,000

    2020-21 = $6,697,000

    2021-22 = $6,900,000

    2022-23 = $7,109,000

    2023-24 = $7,324,000

    2024-25 = $7,546,000

    2025-26 = $7,774,000

    2026-27 = $8,011,000

    He also reported that those costs would increase by 22.5% if CALPERS reduces its expected rate of return (“discount rate”) by 1%.  In that scenario $6,125,000 would jump up to $7,508,000 and $8,011,000 would jump up to $9,820,000.

    In aggregate, those three components of Davis’ retirement costs add up to:

    2017-18 = $14,329,000

    2018-19 = $15,512,000

    2019-20 = $16,698,000

    2020-21 = $17,563,000

    2021-22 = $18,535,000

    2022-23 = $19,421,000

    2023-24 = $20,164,000

    2024-25 = $21,005,000

    If CALPERS reduces its expected rate of return (“discount rate”) by 1%, $14,329,000 jumps up to $17,564,000 and $21,005,000 jumps up to $25,748,000.

  10. tribeUSA

    “Newspapers, television, and the internet are feeding us what dolphins call ‘meep… meepahh… marp’—Literally, lies as deep as the ocean.”

    Jeff Rovin, former editor of Weekly World News
    Note: Weekly World News was closed down when the Mainstream News sank to a level of accuracy less reliable than the Weekly World News, by the Big Boys of Mainstream Media.

  11. Tia Will

    Newspapers, television, and the internet are feeding us….”

    Which I see as an argument not for deciding in advance whose spin on the news is reliable since it comes closest to our own beliefs, but rather to watch the actual words and actions of those in power. It can be done, but it is difficult to outright deny that one has said or done something that has been caught on tape This is equally true regardless of which end of the political spectrum one is on.

     
     

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