So I’ve decided Think Progress (Yglesias excepted) is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from a Left-Wing version of the Malkin-Coulter axis, a propaganda outlet that exists more to make its base accept a caricature of its opponents than to advance any kind of coherent agenda.
Case in point: the recent incident in rural Obion County, Tennessee
where a fire department reportedly watched a home burn down with no action on the grounds that the homeowner had failed to pay a fee for fire service.* The fee-for-service arrangement existed because the rural jurisdiction where the homeowner resided lacked its own fire department, and as such relied on a nearby municipality for its fire services. All eight of the municipal fire departments in Obion County charge the homeowner a response fee of $500 for each extra-jurisdictional call, but this fee is recovered only about half the time
. As such, 3 of these 8 fire departments also charge a subscription fee to extra-jurisdictional residents, with the apparently rarely enforced understanding that failure to pay the fee will result in no fire coverage at all. It appears that in this particular instance, the responding fire department decided to make an exception to its historic practices of fighting fires anyway and actually enforce the understanding, perhaps in the hopes of fighting back against the free rider problem and perhaps in the hopes of garnering support for a county-wide fire tax (which the local fire departments state is their preferred solution in the report linked to above). So the problem faced in this county is not “homes are burning down everywhere because of the heartless fee-for-service arrangement,” but instead “fire departments are underfunded because they lack the means to collect fees for extra-jurisdictional responses.” In other words, rather than being the cause of the problem, the subscription fees-for-service arrangements are an imperfect solution to the problem.
This, however, is not how Think Progress has chosen to portray the story. Instead, in a series of posts (here
), we are told only that:
1. A heartless fire department refused to put a fire out simply because the homeowner refused to pay his fees.
2. This epitomizes the “on your own” society of the conservative vision for the USA.
3. National Review’s staff thinks the homeowner deserved to lose his house, demonstrating the heartlessness of conservatives;
4. After this incident, the county – which is run by heartless Republicans – expanded the subscription-for-service arrangement to all eight of the county’s fire departments;
5. The expansion of this arrangement amounts to “essentially expanding the service that stood by and watched as the Cranick family’s home burned to the ground.”
6. The fire departments object to the expansion solely on the grounds that it will undermine fire safety.
7. Coverage for the entire county would be adequately provided for by the imposition of a mere 0.13 cent increase in property taxes.
Never does Think Progress inform its readers of the status quo ante, which is that this is a very rural county where a majority of people live outside the jurisdiction of the 8 municipalities (and thus the 8 municipal fire departments) and do not pay taxes to those municipalities. Never do we learn from Think Progress of the tremendous free-rider problem faced by the five municipalities without a subscription-based service, nor of the continuing (but presumably marginally less) free-rider problems faced by the three municipalities with a subscription-based fire service.
Nowhere is it suggested that the decision to decline the subscription by this particular homeowner may have been a calculated risk rather than a function of inadequate resources – instead, this is simply dismissed out of hand and it is strongly implied (without any evidence whatsoever) that the homeowner simply lacked the resources to pay the $75. Meanwhile, nowhere is it acknowledged that the supposedly paltry proposed property tax increase of 0.13 percent would actually be nearly double the $75.00 subscription fee currently in existence on a home valued at just $100,000 (IOW, Think Progress’ insistence on a property tax hike would almost certainly take more money out of this impliedly indigent homeowner’s pocket). Nowhere is it acknowledged that the reason the fire departments are pushing the property tax hike is primarily the free-rider problem of the status quo ante rather than a desire to stop allowing houses to burn since, as mentioned above, the fire departments don’t actually allow houses to burn as a routine matter. Indeed, Think Progress doesn’t even acknowledge that under the status quo ante, the firefighters in this county routinely put out fires even on properties that have not paid their subscriptions and that this particular incident is a rare exception rather than a common occurence; rather than being an isolated, almost unprecedented, occurence in a small rural county in Tennessee, Think Progress portrays it as a harbinger of things to come under conservative governance (who, oddly, have governed much of the country for decades without this sort of thing happening on a regular basis).
Indeed, Think Progress’ cherry-picked facts would tell us to never mind that this kind of situation would be extremely rare even in a world where all fire services were fee-based for the simple reason that no lender would ever provide a loan without a guarantee, funded by an escrow account, that the homeowner would pay for fire coverage, and no homeowners’ insurer would sign off on a policy without fire service unless it required the homeowner to pay a hugely inflated premium whose inflation would be in excess of the fire service fee. So, for this sort of scenario to play out, you need a home that is owned free and clear of any loans and that is either uninsured or that is insured for a huge premium. There’s a reason this is the first time in recent memory where we’ve heard a story like this!
To be sure, it is entirely possible to use this story to make an entirely reasonable political point with or without reference to these undisclosed facts, and indeed it is quite possible to use the story as a case for a fire service tax for this particular county. Unfortunately, such points would only be pertinent to very specific arguments about the nuances of local governance in rural Tennessee, and would thus fall well outside Think Progress’s broader narrative that:
“there are currently two competing visions of governance
in the United States. One, the conservative vision, believes in the on-your-own society, and informs a policy agenda that primarily serves the well off and privileged sectors of the country. The other vision, the progressive one, believes in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background.”
And so, Think Progress reports only that this house burned down because of uncaring conservatives and their vision of government, and that it is precisely the sort of thing that will happen all the time under a conservative view of government, critically omitted facts be damned, never mind that those critically omitted facts firmly place this incident outside Think Progress’ preferred narrative. What matters is that the cherry-picked facts in Think Progress’ reporting fit that narrative – and, well, they do.
None of this would matter, though, were it not for the fact that Think Progress has cultivated a huge, if ideologically partisan, audience that often relies on it to accurately present information. In this case, the information Think Progress has cherry-picked leads inexorably to Think Progress’ (and most of its audience’s) preferred narrative, and its story was thus quickly picked up and circulated by an almost absurd number of sites
, to say nothing of any talk show hosts with reasonably large audiences who likewise may have circulated the story.
What makes Think Progress’ actions here particularly egregious is that the alternative to fee-based fire service is obviously a mandatory tax-based fire service. And, yeah, this would have prevented this particular home from burning down….but only because the homeowners would have been required to pay a higher fee in the form of a tax hike than the the fee that they impliedly could not afford in the first place. As such, what Think Progress is effectively saying here, once all the facts are known, is thus little different from what the NRO folks defending the firefighters’ actions are saying: if you’re unwilling to pay your taxes, then it should come as little surprise that government will be unable/unwilling to provide you services. The difference is that Think Progress is adding to that formulation by suggesting that no one should be able to opt out of paying those taxes/fees because, under any individual’s set of calculations, the benefits of that individual’s paying those taxes will accrue to that individual in an amount greater than the tax amount. Or, put another way, government knows what’s best for any given individual.
Think Progress’ manipulation of this story is thus the epitome of the “managed ignorance” that Jason and others here at this site -myself included -have so emphatically criticized in recent months. In cherry-picking facts that support its movement’s narrative – and no more facts than that – and then pushing its story on that ideologically like-minded movement, Think Progress has ensured that its loyal readers “get just enough news, and never more than they need to remain exactly where they are.”
*To be sure, I think the Fire Department here should have fought the fire (especially given the pre-existing practice of fighting such fires, the fact that the neighbors had paid the fee, and the fact that a burned-down home has inherent collateral damage on neighboring properties even when those properties are not directly burned), or at least they should have had some kind of allowance for simply billing the homeowner for the full cost of fighting the fire, but this is hardly the sort of thing that qualifies as a complete repudiation of fee-based governance, or at least it doesn’t so qualify when it is put into its full context. Especially given the department’s past practices of fighting fires with or without a subscription, it was reasonable for the homeowner to rely on those past practices in making his decision not to pay the subscription fee, and the department should have made some well-publicized announcement months in advance that it intended to start enforcing the subscription-fee heavily.