Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Half The Story

When someone leaves out a big chunk of a story, you have to wonder what was missing and why.

I wrote about one-sided stories before in two separate articles.  As both an engineer and an attorney, it annoys me when people present me with partial data sets and then tried to convince me to reach a predetermined conclusion.

An attorney, the scenario would play out in as follows. People would call me up and ask for my opinion on some legal matter. I would explain to them that I could provide them with some general information, but if they wanted a legal opinion, I would have to research the issue and obviously charge them for my time.

Of course, they wanted none of this.  What they wanted me to do was provide them with an opinion whose conclusion they had already reached.  They would then present me with one side of the story which would contain a number of facts which pointed inescapably to only one conclusion.

When I started asking pointed questions and picking away at the edges of their story, they would become upset.  "That's not relevant!" they would say, "the main point is..."

But of course, a legal opinion that you merely purchase based on preconceived conclusions is not worth the paper it is printed on.

In the media, we see the same sort of thing.  The papers print stories which present only half of the relevant data, in order to persuade you of a particular viewpoint.

This is not necessarily fake news, but biased news.  Usually such stories have, as their centerpiece, a sympathetic victim who is going through a tough time.  We are told of all the woe this person is facing and the unfair treatment they are receiving at the hands of the authorities.  We are supposed to weep on cue.

But often, there are holes in these stories, or at least unexplained details and missing facts.  And usually these missing facts, by their very absence, tell volumes about what the real story is.

For example, this weepy news story provided by a reader, describes how difficult it is to be poor.  And no doubt it definitely sucks to be poor, as I've been there myself, scrambling to get by on three low-wage jobs at the same time, while working my way through college.  I've had to live on ramen noodles, peanut butter, and rice.  It wasn't all that bad, though, as I was working toward a goal at the time.

In the article, the victim describes how their car was towed away and impounded and since they couldn't afford $100 to pay for the towing and impound charges, the car had to stay in the impound lot until the storage fees, which eventually totaled in the thousands of dollars were paid - far more than the car was worth.  So she lost the car.

SPOILER ALERT:  To cut to the chase here, the author of the article is selling a book about how it sucks to be poor and how the poor have no choices or opportunities.  So you can see that the article is conveniently missing some facts, as she wants to sell her sad story and her book.  She also resorts to "shaming" techniques to shout down anyone who disagrees with her.   "Some middle-class guy" she says, wrote a book on how to save money, but it was of no use to her!  Shame on "middle-class guy" for offering suggestions on how to save money!  You see where this goes.  Dissent is not allowed, and anyone who questions her sainthood is a bad, bad person.  The poor are noble!

Having your car impounded is certainly is a shitty thing to happen to anyone, although it has happened to me in the past.  When I was starving student, I used to park illegally at school, and received a number of tickets from the school for not having a parking permit.  I figured that the school had no legal way to enforce these tickets as they didn't know who I was, so I blew them off.   When I went to register for classes next semester, they wouldn't let me register until I cleared up those tickets.  Whoops.

Of course, I thought this was wildly unfair that I had to pay hundreds of dollars in tickets, plus pay for a parking permit, particularly since I was working multiple jobs at night to make ends meet. It was very, very hard to scrape up the money to pay the University. And it seemed particularly unfair, because the place I parked was basically a vacant lot with maybe three cars in over 3 acres of land. It clearly was a money grab of a part of the University, which is one reason I don't send money to their alumni fund.

But I realized that I had to pay these tickets and pay for the parking permit, whether I wanted to or not.  It was entirely my fault for not figuring out the parking scheme and getting a parking permit in advance.  All my protestations aside, they were not moved at all and were not willing to make an exception for me.  That's how life works, sometimes it sucks. 

Another time I had my car towed at the Patent Office.  Back in the days before online filing I used to drive to the deposit window and park illegally in the fire lane and run in and deposit my papers.  This worked out for a couple of years until one day, I guess the tow truck driver was waiting for me, as soon as I got out of the car he put the hook on the back of my car and yanked it away.

Not only did I have to go to the ATM and get cash to pay for the towing and the impound fees which were well over $100, I had to pay for a taxi ride to remote storage lot where they took my car. It was annoying pain in the ass, but of course I was at fault for parking in a fire lane even if it was just for a few minutes.   But of course, by that point in my life, I had $100 in my checking account to pay the fee - and the cab fare.  (I had given up on smoking pot and worked my way out of poverty and into the middle-class).

In the cited story above, the poor lady had her car towed and was unable to afford the impound and towing fees.  It is a sad story, but one thing we are not told his why the car was towed in the first place - although she does admit it was her fault.

This simple piece of missing information in the story speaks volumes.  Because if it was something as simple as illegally parking, they would have been sure to mention it.  I mean, after all, who hasn't fallen into that trap?  You would have sympathy for someone in that situation.  But the reason is conspicuously absent.

There are basically four ways you can have your car towed and impounded. The first, as I listed above is to park in a fire lane, or other tow-away zone where your car will be towed immediately, without warning, without tickets, etcetera.  If this was the case in the story, I'm not sure why they would not mention it as it certainly would put the victim in a good light or at least a better one.  We could all sympathize with a simple mistake like that, right?

Similarly if your car breaks down by the side of the road, the police will come along and put an orange sticker on it, and eventually it will be towed away if you don't retrieve it within a few days or a week. Where we live in rural Georgia, such breakdowns are so common that the police are fairly lenient - giving the car owner days or even weeks to retrieve the vehicle before they tow it away.  Again, this situation would tend to put the victim of the story in a good light, so it is not clear why they would not mention it, if it was the case.

Thus, I suspect the real reason is one of the remaining two causes you could have for your car to be towed, neither of which would put the victim in a very good light. First, if you had accumulated a number of parking tickets over time and failed to pay them, they might eventually tow your car. However, most jurisdictions, they will first attach a boot to your car and then force you to pay for your tickets before they tow it.  So it seems unlikely this was the reason why the car was towed - or if it was the reason, it certainly puts the victim in a bad light for not paying multiple parking tickets and running up parking tickets in the first place.

And I can say that when I was poor, I was very cognizant of parking laws, as I could ill-afford a parking ticket or the cost of being towed.  As my experience at University illustrated, such tickets can be very expensive. I wrongly assumed the university would not have any means of enforcing their parking rules, which they don't, unless you are a student and want to register for classes.

The fourth reason why your car can be towed is probably the most odious and might be the reason why the victim had their car towed and why it isn't discussed in the article.  If you get pulled over for drunk driving or some other offense, your car could be towed and impounded.  If you don't retrieve the vehicle promptly, the impound fees can add up and quickly exceed the value of the vehicle.  And eventually, the car ends up being auctioned off for the impound fees, which exceed the value of the vehicle.

Again, it is hard to say which of the four reasons is the actual reason why the victim in the story had their car towed in the first place.  However since this information is glaringly lacking in the article, I can only assume that the reason why they did not disclose the reason the vehicle was towed was that it would put the victim in a bad light and people would be less inclined to feel sorry for them. as they brought the trouble upon themselves.  And then they wouldn't buy her book.

If the victim had sheaves of unpaid parking tickets that they were refusing to pay, few people would feel much sympathy for them.  If the car was impounded as part of an arrest for drugs or alcohol or some other reason related to criminality, people will be even less inclined to feel sorry for the victim.

The point is, when I hear a story like this and there are obvious facts that are missing - obvious facts that could sway the entire story one way or another - I tend to assume the truth probably isn't beneficial to the subject of the story.

As I noted in my earlier postings, most people don't seem to notice these glaring omissions from various news stories. They read a slanted or biased story which present selected facts in a certain light and then go charging off outraged at the injustice of it all,without bothering to figure out whether there is another side to the story and why information which is key to the story is mysteriously missing.

In this era of fake news, it is disappointing that much of the mainstream media seems to have a bias in one direction or another.  When you read a story or watch it on television you have to bear in mind the political viewpoints of the network or newspaper while evaluating the story.  It isn't hard to parse out what is happening when certain facts are missing, particularly when these facts are missing from a story printed in one paper but our present in the same story in a different paper with a different political viewpoint.

Sadly, biased news has led to the creation of fake news.  When media outlets put a spin on facts and try to persuade us of one particular narrative over another, people tend to place less trust in mainstream media.  This primes the pump for fake news, as people are prepared to believe just about anything, as they don't trust the mainstream media.

Thus, it saddens me when I read articles in newspapers with reputations as storied as the New York Times, which are clearly trying to sell a political narrative rather than merely reporting the news. I expect political spin on the editorial page and from the opinion section. It is disappointing when you see it on the front page.  And yes, we expect slanted news from any Murdoch publication or station.  It is sad that the rest of the media feels obligated to follow suit - slanting the opposite direction, as if to compensate.

But the real story about poverty?  Yes, it is a lot about bad choices.   When we lived in impoverished rural Central New York, it was quite common to see a poor person blast into the gas station at full-throttle (drive it like you stole it, right?), screech to a halt in their muffler-less rusted-out hoop-de, toss a couple dollars worth of gas in the tank and then spend $20 on cigarettes.

And considering how important transportation is to the poor, it never ceases to amaze me how the poor drive all over hell's half-acre just for the hell of it, as if driving a car were a form of entertainment (and this is often how they end up arrested, as the Police can really only police you when you are in your car.  If you are going to drink or smoke pot, just stay home).

The author of the article suggests that saving $5 a week would amount to "only $260 a year" so why bother trying, right?   However, that $260 would clearly would have been more than enough to pay their impound fees.   It is a matter of choices - bad choices - and the author hints at many others, including walking away from an apartment lease when the landlord delayed in fixing a refrigerator.  That sort of thing makes it harder to rent a nicer place down the road.

And of course, we have to take her word for it that the reason she was fired from so many jobs was that she showed up "late and sweaty" from walking.   We get one side of the story, of course, and even if we could track down her former employers, they could not - for fear of being sued - tell us the other side.  One-sided stories - never to be trusted!

The author is correct to some extent, that once you fall down the economic ladder, it becomes exponentially harder and harder to climb back up.   Once you make one financial mistake, it compounds into a series of increasingly serious financial penalties in short order.   If you mess up on your credit, you are offered only the highest possible interest rates.  But that is a way of the financial system saying, "Stop borrowing money!" by jacking the rates to the point where they are unaffordable.  Sadly, many continue to keep borrowing.

Feeling sorry for people is never the answer to anything.   But I suspect the folks who like that story and buy her book are not poor people, but upper-class liberals who want to shake their head and say, "tsk-tsk!  Look what the Republicans have done!" as if the laws relating to car impound are something recent and not, in fact, decades old.

Obviously the author can write, and thus comes from an educated background.  And no doubt by publishing a book, is no longer leading a hand-to-mouth existence.   One wonders how the author ended up in poverty to begin with - there has to be another side to the story there which again, we are not told about.

Were there drugs involved?   I only say this because a lot of my middle-class friends descended the rungs into poverty, starting out by smoking pot.  It nearly snared me as well.  While its physical effects may not be as drastic as heroin or meth, pot does tend to cause users to lose jobs and end up poorer and poorer, as I have noted before.  And usually marijuana users have weepy "feel sorry for me!" stories about how all the woes in their lives are someone else's fault.

But again, we'll never know, because the whole story isn't told.   All we are told is that poverty sucks, it is impossible to get out of, and of course, it is someone else's faultExternalizing raises its ugly head yet again.   So sad, too, because once you start externalizing, you never solve your own problems.

UPDATE:  It seems there is a backgound story to this lady, who is apparently making some serious bucks by writing about being "poor".   She apparently comes from a middle-class background, is a college drop-out (like me) and was poor more by choice than circumstance - if indeed she ever was.  There are more questions than answers.

As one person put it, she complains about walking two miles to work, but never thought to buy a $50 bicycle on Craigslist?