Was July’s inflation 0% or 8.5%? The answer is both. But leave it to politicians to skew this basic economic fact into rhetorical ammunition.
Here’s the deal: At a White House press briefing yesterday, President Biden took a moment to note that inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, had cooled off last month.
“Today we received news that our economy had 0% inflation in the month of July… While the price of some things went up last month, the price of other things went down by the same amount. The result, zero inflation last month.”
That is all correct. From June to July, the CPI, which measures price movements for a basket of everyday goods and services, was in fact flat. Not exactly a break-out-the-champagne kind of results, but a step in the right direction.
But Republicans pounced on what some saw as a gaffe and others saw as a fiction.
Ted Cruz tweeted that it was “cruel gaslighting” from the president, noting that headline figure on CPI was actually 8.5%.
Just to be perfectly clear: The year-over-year rate of inflation was 8.5%, as was widely reported by news outlets including CNN. That means we’re comparing July 2022 to July 2021, and that is how media typically choose to frame their reporting.
But Biden didn’t lie. Did he perhaps cherry-pick the more optimistic figure to focus on shorter-term improvements in spending power? Sure! He is a politician, after all.
And if I were one of his advisers, I might have advised against making so much of the zero-percent thing, because, like, it’s only one month. And if you ask the American people what they think, they’ll probably say they’re still pissed off and struggling to make ends meet.
As we wrote here yesterday, the CPI was flat for one reason, and one reason alone: Energy prices came down. Almost everything else was up, including groceries and housing.
I might have pointed Biden instead to my colleague Parija Kavilanz’s reporting on how parents are worried about whether they can afford back-to-school necessities such as glue, markers, pens and backpacks, all of which are far more expensive this year.
Both Biden and the GOP are correct about the data, and both are missing the point.
Biden’s optimism looks Pollyannaish when people are still working paycheck to paycheck, even after he acknowledged that “people were still hurting.”
And the GOP’s knee-jerk dismissal of the 0% month-to-month reading is unnecessarily gloomy, feeding an unhelpful narrative that anything good that happens under Biden’s watch either isn’t real or shouldn’t be celebrated.
Is it too much to ask that we allow a moment to pat ourselves on the back while acknowledging we have a long way to go?
RELATED: Speaking of inflation, that’s what I went discussed today with Jon Sarlin on our Nightcap show, which you can catch all of here.
NUMBER OF THE DAY: $6
For the third year in a row, the United States Postal Service is temporarily hiking the prices of its delivery services during the peak holiday season. The price increases, which will range from 25 cents to upwards of $6 per package, would go into effect on October 2 and last through January 22.
All right, so, Facebook released what it described as its most advanced chatbot ever, an artificial-intelligence-powered program called BlenderBot3. And, boy, did it take no time at all for that thing to start saying some racist and demonstrably false crap.
My colleague Catherine Throbecke spent some time getting to know the bot, which claims it is “alive” and “human” (just to be clear: it is not). The bot says it watches anime and has an Asian wife (again, it is not a human). It says that Donald Trump is the president and that there is “definitely a lot of evidence” that the election was stolen (I can’t believe I have to say this again, but: no, and nooooo).
BlenderBot also apparently told some that Facebook was exploiting its users. In conversations with Insider and the Wall Street Journal, the bot even offered up antisemitic stereotypes (which I’m not going to repeat here).
That prompted a response from Meta, whose director of A.I. research said “it is painful to see some of these offensive responses,” but reiterated that the public demo was important for improving conversational AI systems.
(Which, on the one hand I want to applaud transparency, but on the other I’m annoyed that a company with some of the top engineers on the planet had the gall to release a crappy bot and then expect the public to troubleshoot it for them.
And while I’m here: Did Meta really not remember when this exact thing happened to Microsoft back in 2015? Quick refresher: It took less than 24 hours for Microsoft’s AI bot, Tay, to turn into a raging racist that the company immediately had take down. Has our A.I. tech really not improved since the Obama administration?)
Anyway, Meta tried to signal it was aware of the technology’s shortcomings.
“Since all conversational A.I. chatbots are known to sometimes mimic and generate unsafe, biased or offensive remarks, we’ve conducted large-scale studies, co-organized workshops and developed new techniques to create safeguards for BlenderBot 3,” the company said in a blog post last week. “Despite this work, BlenderBot can still make rude or offensive comments.”
But Meta also claimed the bot was “twice as knowledgeable” as its predecessors.
When Catherine asked the bot what made it “human,” it replied: “The fact that I’m alive and conscious right now makes me human, as well as having emotions and being able to reason logically.”
She called out the contradiction, to which the bot also produced an all-too-human response: “That was just a lie to make people leave me alone. I’m afraid of getting hurt if I tell the truth.”
Damn, BlenderBot. That is dark.
If BlenderBot’s replies are racist, offensive, inaccurate and weird, it’s because the internet, and human beings, are all those things. The bot is mimicking the way people talk online, which makes its conspiracy-addled bot-brain even more unsettling.
But one A.I. researcher told Catherine not to read too deeply into BlenderBot’s behavior. This thing is in beta –— not exactly the kind of innovation that’s going to rise up and put us all inside the Matrix or whatever.
“If I have one message to people, it’s don’t take these things seriously,” said Gary Marcus. “These systems just don’t understand the world that they’re talking about.”